Most careers end with a gold watch or a happy hour. For retiring House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the parting gift from the nation’s taxpayers appears to be an all-expenses-paid tour of Italy, Switzerland and China.
Gordon told his constituents in mid-December that he was calling it quits after 13 terms. Since then, the Blue Dog Coalition member has embarked on a global victory lap of sorts, spending tens of thousands of dollars to sample international locales while traveling on official government business.
By June, Gordon will have traveled on six Congressional delegation trips in seven months. A House Democratic aide confirmed that Gordon attempted to organize a seventh trip in March — to Madrid and Seville, Spain — that was later called off.
Citing security concerns, Science panel spokeswoman Alex Dery Snider declined to discuss upcoming committee travel. Documents obtained by Roll Call, however, show that Gordon expects to touch down in Europe later this week for a six-day trip to Italy and Switzerland, where he will meet with European Union scientists and visit the Geneva-area Large Hadron Collider, a massive physics experiment that recently made headlines worldwide.
A March 9 e-mail sent by Science Committee staffer Leigh Ann Brown said the delegation was attempting to secure a military airplane for the sojourn.
In late May, Gordon is also expected to visit China on official business. According to a letter signed by Gordon, the delegation will meet with the chairman of the National People’s Congress Science, Education, Culture and Public Health Committee to discuss “renewable energy along with a look at China’s work on clean coal and space and aeronautics issues.”
“I know it is difficult to find the time for the lengthy trip that travel to China requires,” Gordon wrote in the letter to colleagues obtained by Roll Call. “However, I am working on a tentative agenda for a trip over the Memorial Day recess.”
Along with many of his Democratic colleagues, Gordon was part of a delegation that racked up a tab of at least $550,000 traveling to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a CODEL that began three days after Gordon announced his retirement. According to the Congressional Record, Gordon flew on a military airplane and expensed roughly $1,500 per day during the 72-hour trip.
Gordon also traveled to France in February for meetings with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, his office disclosed.
“This is all related to work,” Snider said of her boss’ overseas travel.
[IMGCAP(1)]In the weeks prior to his retirement announcement, Gordon and Democratic committee staffers spent more than $50,000 on two trips to Europe, the Congressional Record also shows. On Halloween 2009, Gordon and two committee staffers — Brown and Chris King — embarked on the first leg of a round-trip flight to the United Kingdom, where Gordon gave a speech to the U.K. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Flights for the trip totaled more than $30,000, and the trio spent roughly $1,400 apiece on expenses for the four-day jaunt.
Less than two weeks after returning, Gordon boarded another flight bound for Italy. He was accompanied only by committee staffer Bess Caughran, and travel records show that the four-day trip cost the pair $19,397, including airfare, spending money and other expenses.
Snider defended both European trips in November, saying that Gordon conducted official committee business while there. In Italy, Gordon spoke to members of the Italian Parliament about scientific education, the spokeswoman said.
Snider also defended the nearly five-figure expense for Caughran’s travel expenses.
“She was staffing him,” Snider said.
Following a telephone interview, Gordon’s office issued the following written statement about his travel:
“The chairman believes strongly that there needs to be international collaboration to solve the major challenges facing the nation and the world. The U.S. went to the moon alone — and paid for it all by ourselves. … [Gordon] takes almost any meeting asked of him from international counterparts who come to the U.S. He has built relationships with his international colleagues and is working hard [to] pin things down while he can.”
Officials for the United States embassies in the United Kingdom and Italy also did not elaborate on the substance of Gordon’s trips. An inquiry made to the U.S. post in Rome was not returned, while a State Department official in London referred all questions to Foggy Bottom.
A State Department spokesman later directed all questions involving overseas travel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office, which declined to comment for this article.
Short-Timers Allowed to Travel
In an e-mail Monday, a Democratic leadership aide wrote that House rules permit retiring Members official overseas travel either until adjournment or the Election Day preceding their departure.
According to Defense Department guidelines, Members are clearly prohibited from traveling on government-funded overseas trips once voters have sealed their fate in general elections. In the Pentagon memo, however, official trips taken by retirement-bound Members are not specifically addressed.
“In adherence to long-standing Senate and House of Representatives rules, Members of Congress and their employees who will not return in the next sitting Congress will not be allowed to travel on either the earlier of the election dates or the date on which the chamber declares itself adjourned indefinitely,” Defense Department guidelines dated Jan. 15 state.
Taxpayers for Common Sense spokesman Steve Ellis said all lawmakers should be “cognizant of the optics of taking these trips, particularly if they are to exotic locales or cushy destinations.” He said the danger is particularly acute for retiring Members, whose experiences overseas are “less of an investment from the taxpayer perspective.”
“It’s just like investing in the training of an employee who’s already announced their departure in six months’ time,” he said.
Former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) also traveled extensively after announcing his retirement. The former House Foreign Affairs subcommittee chairman rang up more than $30,000 in international travel to China, Israel, Turkey and elsewhere in the second half of last year, most of which came after he announced his retirement in mid-October.
Wexler is now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. He declined to comment for this article.
Retiring Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) also traveled to Europe last year, well after both announced their retirements in January 2009. According to the Congressional Record, which does not state exact travel dates for Senate delegation trips, the two lawmakers spent at least $10,000 combined on separate trips to Europe, although scant details in the Congressional Record suggest the total expense was much more. Their offices did not return requests for comment on the travel.
Retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who resigned last year, also took trips to Europe after publicly stating that they would not be on the ballot in 2010. Again, few details of the trips’ overall costs were included in the Congressional Record. Martinez’s office did not respond to requests for comment, while a Gregg spokeswoman defended the trip.
“As the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, Senator Gregg is responsible for funding U.S. foreign assistance programs and Department of State and USAID operations abroad which totaled over $48 billion in Fiscal Year 2010 alone,” Gregg spokeswoman Laena Fallon said in a statement. “Regardless of his plans to retire, in his role as ranking member, Senator Gregg maintains responsibility for the distribution and oversight of such programs and operations throughout the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations process, which has just begun.”
The dearth of information and detailed itineraries for these trips concerns Ellis.
“All of that information has to be made public right away, so people can see if they are staying in four-star hotels, living lavishly — or going to Afghanistan,” he said.