Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

West Coast Lawmakers Recount Their Travels and Travails

Posted March 26, 2012 at 6:35pm

In the early 1980s, during a routine flight from Washington, D.C., to California, Rep. Pete Stark met a young entrepreneur who was interested in donating computers to schools but was stymied by the way the tax code treated such donations.

That chance encounter between the crusty Democratic Congressman and the young computer whiz named Steve Jobs eventually led to the creation of a charitable deduction allowance for computer donations.

Most West Coast lawmakers don’t experience such life-altering events while heading home for the weekend.

So what are they doing up there?

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) — in typical Don Young fashion — takes solace in a good rest and a politically incorrect wish for his 10-hour flight.

“I always hope I get to sit next to a pretty blonde,” he says. “But it never happens.”

Rep. Mazie Hirono uses the 5,000 miles between D.C. and Hawaii to catch up on work, and she finds home cooking is a motivation.

“I love going home and being able to bring back my favorite Hawaiian dishes,” the Democratic lawmaker says. 

For dozens of Members in the Pacific time zone and beyond, finding a routine can help fill long hours and thousands of miles spent in the sky. A few sat down with Roll Call to talk about their regular westward journeys.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) 

For Mack, the flight to her home near Palm Springs is an opportunity to catch up on work or indulge in some light reading.

“Sometimes I like a People magazine I can thumb through. I’ll play solitaire on my iPad when I’m really tired,” she says.

While constituents onboard will regularly recognize Mack, she describes most interactions as “generally friendly.”

“They jump for joy and do backflips,” she jokes. “[But] if there is a hot issue going on at the time, it might get mentioned.”

As a weekly flier, Mack has had the pleasure of sitting next to some interesting passengers, chatting once with an astronaut.

“We talked about his job and space. I also sat next to a couple of reporters,” she recalls. “One was from Real Clear Politics, the other from the Huffington Post, and I follow them both on Twitter.”

During flights, Mack — once married to a former pop star — also likes to relax with some tunes. 

“I listen to Dr. Dre’s ‘I Need a Doctor,’ classic rock, classical. I listen to a lot of different things,” she says.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.)

Bass enjoys getting caught up on current events during her trek to California. 

“As a news junkie, I like keeping in touch with what is going on,” she says.

Even in her first term, Bass is often recognized on flights by constituents ready to exercise their constitutional right to seek a redress of grievances.

“People definitely speak to me about the craziness of Congress. I spend time explaining to them how it works and that sometimes what appears to be crazy isn’t,” she says. “But sometimes it is.”

While work takes up the bulk of her flight, Bass also likes to relax by watching movies or reading a book.

“I usually watch whatever they show,” she says. “I read a lot of nonfiction. Right now I’m reading the biography of Ted Kennedy.”

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.)

For Heck, the seven-hour flight home is an opportunity to get work done. He says he preps notes and creates checklists and goals to present during staff meetings. 

“Our office has something called a battle book that I look through for case work and email reports,” Heck says. “I get a lot of my most productive work done during these flights.”

And, like Bono Mack and Bass, he often encounters constituents who take advantage of the opportunity of sitting next to a Member of Congress.

“Sometimes you get people that are chatty, and you have to find a way to get back to work. They are thinking, ‘I’ve got my Representative on a flight so I should ask him some questions,’” Heck says.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii)

Hanabusa enjoys a good puzzle to pass the time of a 12-hour flight to the islands.

“I’ve always liked puzzles,” she says. “I do Sudoku, and recently somebody gave me a Kindle Fire for Christmas.” 

She also enjoys reading books that relate to her work as a lawmaker.

“I recently read this book called ‘Democracy’s Arsenal’ that I think is really good for anybody interested in the future of the military. It’s an excellent book,” says Hanabusa, who serves on the Armed Services Committee.

While a rocky flight might startle the uninitiated, Hanabusa draws on her experiences as a seasoned flier to maintain her composure.

“The worst airplane ride I can remember, when I was a younger kid we lost an engine and we were in the middle of the Pacific and we had to turn around. … I think once you experience those things, turbulence is minor,” she says.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)

Begich would prefer a Thursday evening flight to Anchorage, but his schedule rarely allows it.

“The Senate usually doesn’t vote till the late evening,” he says. “A lot of Senators can be home in less than an hour, and they forget that some of us have longer ways to go.”

Begich’s 4,000-mile cross-continental trip gives him time to rest before a full day of work. 

“I will work on that Friday I land, so it’s also important that I get time to sleep. Some days I’ll be working till 4 a.m., so it’s important that I manage my workload,” he says.

When constituents recognize Begich on a flight, they will often avoid speaking with him, opting instead for a more passive — and ever so modern — form of communication.

“I’ll look on Facebook and someone will write they were sitting next to me in the airport, but they didn’t want to bug me,” Begich says. “Or sometimes they will send me Facebook messages about what they wanted to talk about.”

Averaging around 130,000 miles annually, Begich says he is closing in on
1 million miles and has some choice words for fellow frequent fliers in the Senate.

“You have to manage your time. A lot of them might say, ‘I shouldn’t sleep, I need to look like I’m working,’ but you need to manage your health, to prepare yourself for the jet lag and time change,” he says. 

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii)

Akaka is a veteran traveler. He has been taking the flight from D.C. to Hawaii for more than 35 years, and his routine has changed over time. 

“Early on, I used to do work,” he says. “Now I try to rest and get some exercise in. I do leg exercises when I’m sitting. I will walk around the plane to get my blood flowing.”

Akaka does not recall having a bad flight or good food.

“You really only have two choices when it comes to food, and I usually don’t like either. So when I am coming back from Hawaii, I pack boxes full of food from home that my wife cooks,” he says.

When it comes to dealing with jet lag, Akaka has become a pro. 

“I usually leave the evening before, and I stay awake till it’s dark. I go to bed in the time frame that I am in, and I find that it really helps me, and the jet lag doesn’t affect me as much,” Akaka says.

Serving his final term before retiring from the Senate, Akaka has some advice for his fellow lawmakers traveling west. 

“Over the years, you should try to improve your plan,” he says. “Pack light, stay hydrated and drink a lot of water.”