Overseas Travel Educates Members, Boosts U.S. Interests

Posted March 28, 2003 at 3:19pm

After reading Roll Call’s March 26 article “Foreign Travel Tab Hits $2.3 Million,” I felt it was important to respond because it unfairly characterizes Congressional travel abroad and glaringly omits the critical reasons why Members of Congress should participate in these trips. More importantly, it fails to recognize the significant role Congress plays in U.S. foreign policy, especially during these difficult and trying times.

I was disappointed and surprised to read such a negative article regarding Congressional travel, having read past criticisms from Roll Call of Members who brag about not owning passports and refuse to go abroad. It was also interesting to see the crux of the criticism being focused on privately funded travel rather than Congressionally funded travel. In the past, many publications have attacked Members for “wasting” taxpayers’ money on travel abroad. It is no wonder why many Members of Congress severely limit their travel — and subsequently limit their ability to educate themselves and impact American foreign policy and world affairs.

The Congressional visits to countries mentioned in the article — including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea and Bahrain — are not “lavish” trips as the article alleged, but rather they are taken because of their strategic value to the United States. Roll Call fails to point out how vital it is, following Sept. 11, 2001, and as American troops are engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom, for Members to travel to front-line nations in the Middle East and Asia.

Members should not think twice before traveling to South Korea to meet with President Roh Moo Hyun to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, to Saudi Arabia to question officials about their role in international terrorism, or to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss the Middle East peace process. I hope future Roll Call articles will highlight the necessity of Member travel to nations such as Bahrain, where America’s 5th Fleet is headquartered, or to Qatar, where the Persian Gulf headquarters of U.S. Central Command is located.

I strongly believe that it is in the best interest of the United States for Members of Congress to visit our most important military installations as well as interact with American troops in the most dangerous regions of the world.

Members and their staffs who have traveled abroad are aware of the grueling itineraries and the intense high-level meetings that are often the only opportunity they will have to meet with their counterparts and organizations abroad. These meetings are essential to Members and staff in order for them to address the myriad problems that exist between Washington and foreign governments.

Members of Congress should be encouraged to see first-hand where and how billions of dollars of U.S. aid are being spent. In addition, it is incredibly beneficial to America for Members and their staffs to develop and sustain lasting relationships with governments and groups abroad. As a member of the House International Relations Committee I have found these trips to be invaluable, and they allow me to gain a measure of trust and understanding with leading officials in regions of the world that few Members of Congress ever visit or express interest in.

Congressional travel with private organizations or with a committee is essential to the United States maintaining its economic, security and political interests globally. Many Members have found private organizations to be helpful in securing critical meetings that could not be arranged by the State Department or a Congressional committee, and they play an extraordinary role in building bridges between disparate individuals or groups that otherwise may not have an opportunity to interact with a Member of Congress.

For example, the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, with which I have traveled over the past year, has sponsored numerous Congressional trips to front-line nations in the Persian Gulf and remains a leading advocate for constructive dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. The center’s service to Members who have been fortunate enough to travel with it is critical to America’s bilateral and multilateral relations in the Middle East.

Furthermore, Roll Call’s article naively assumes that Members not on the International Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees can readily travel at government expense. This is not the case.

At such a pivotal moment in U.S. history and as anti-American sentiment around the globe is at an all-time high, I am proud of the strong relationships I have helped foster in support of America’s interests abroad.

When Members travel, they help spread American ideals to those countries that look to the United States as a beacon of hope, freedom and prosperity. As the people’s representatives of the world’s lone superpower, Members of Congress are responsible for making decisions about issues affecting the future of every corner of the earth and should be encouraged to travel.

Finally, I would like to offer some constructive criticism to Roll Call for failing to provide relevant and specific information concerning who the Congressional delegations met with and what was the purpose of their mission. Like many Members, I proudly display all of my travel itineraries on my Web site as well as outline the purpose of my travel. I want to make certain that my constituents know what their Representative is doing abroad and how it impacts their lives and that of all Americans.

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) is a member of the International Relations Committee.