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Pssst: Here Are the Real Rules for Congressional Travel

TO: New Member of Congress
FROM: Paranoid Press Secretary
RE: Travel Policy (Unofficial)

The controversy involving trips abroad by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) suggests that we revisit the rules regarding your Congressional travel.

I don’t mean the “official” House rules, which are designed to allow Members of Congress to understand and appreciate other cultures while learning about emerging issues around the globe (and, unfortunately, occasionally allow a few of your colleagues to have too much fun on the taxpayer’s or lobbyist’s dime).

Rather, I refer to the “unofficial” rules of Congressional travel — the movable ethical target created by the media, forcing us to constantly question every aspect of your international travel regardless of its merit.

Strict adherence to these rules will ensure that you avoid the same fate as some of your colleagues and that you stay off the front page. It may also mean that you never leave your desk.

1. Don’t go anywhere with indoor plumbing. No one was ever slapped with the headline, “Congressman Criticized for Desert Junket to Visit Poor People.” We should seek those Godforsaken locations that no one would ever want to go to. The upside is you won’t get negative coverage. The downside is you won’t get positive coverage either. (Sorry, golf trips make better headlines.)

2. Don’t go anywhere safe. You are allowed to go to places with indoor plumbing only if the possibility exists that you may be mugged, bombed or face incoming mortar fire. Recent research shows that the Middle East was one of the top destinations of Members of Congress, and, of course, that fully satisfies these criteria. It also showed that Italy was very popular. However, given that America is not facing any kind of international pasta crisis, I recommend that you cancel that week in Venice.

3. Don’t go anyplace warm in winter. Is Palm Beach really “on the way” to your December speech at the North Dakota Beet Growers convention? It’s hard to sell constituents on the idea that you need to go on a “fact-finding” trip to Hawaii in January. No one is looking for facts in Hawaii; they’re looking for hula skirts and the waiter who can refill their piña coladas.

4. Staff can carry bags but can’t be treated like Members. This talk of staffers going on trips with Members of Congress, eating the same meals and sitting in first class just unsettles the natural order of things in Washington. Staffers can go on golf outings, but only if they caddy. And, they need to fly coach. Better yet, check to see if the cargo hold is available.

5. Travel on no-name airlines. If you have to take Air France (which sounds like it serves champagne in the luggage compartment) then make sure you book a connecting flight on Air Kazakhstan to complete your journey. Your staff is currently researching those airlines with the worst safety records in the known world. When they’re done, they’ll create a strategy to build frequent flier points with them.

6. Don’t smile in any photos when traveling. Smile when you’re on vacation, not when you’re working. If you’re smiling, you must be having fun, and constituents don’t want you to have fun. Ever. If you have to get your picture taken, be sure to grimace, as if in pain. And if possible, carry something heavy like a sandbag or small child from your host country.

7. Cram the schedule. Recently, a group’s schedule was made public and one of the agenda items said, “Free time for shopping.” Please don’t travel with any group this stupid. If you do have free time, make sure the group amends the schedule to read, “Free time for reading lengthy and boring material provided by the hosts that you have to read out of gratitude for getting a free trip.” Feel free to italicize “lengthy” and “boring.”

8. No wives. I know this one hurts, since you only get to see your wife twice a year because of the floor voting schedule and the town meetings we set up for you. But the bright side is that you might talk to other Members of Congress — and they may even be members of another political party! Consider this part of your quest to learn about people of other cultures and values.

Finally, keep in mind that travel really isn’t necessary for your job as molder of American foreign policy. The media has pretty much dictated that all international travel will be subject to criticism, so it’s safer to stay home. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) used to brag that he never left American shores.

And, in a time when the threat of global terrorism is rising, and when Members’ understanding of international trends is more important than ever, why would you need to leave the good ol’ US of A? Spend more time at home, and have your opinions of other nations formed by your regular visits to the Fort Worth Rotary Club.

Brad Fitch is a former Congressional press secretary and author of “Media Relations Handbook for Agencies, Associations, Non-profits, and Congress.” He also is an adjunct associate professor of communications at American University.

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