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Paris Air Show: Begging for Senators?

Even in the age of sequestration and curbed official travel, U.S. senators, their spouses and staffers will be heading to the Paris Air Show as part of an official congressional delegation this June. But just how many of them are planning to go is still up in the air, and many offices are hesitant to boast of a summertime trip to the City of Lights.

The Paris Air Show and Farnborough International Airshow are the largest aviation and space industry trade events in the world. They alternate each year, with Farnborough, in Hampshire, England, going in even-numbered years and the Parisians getting their spot in odd-numbered years. This year, the Paris Air Show is scheduled June 17 through June 23. Every year a CODEL of senators who are somehow connected to the aviation, defense or space industries hop a plane to represent the United States in Britain or France.

Even in the best of times, the optics can be bad for members of Congress and their entourages to attend an event billed as “where aerospace leaders get down to business” and sponsored by companies such as Raytheon and Honeywell.

But with austerity all the rage, lawmakers might find themselves having to make a tough choice between skipping the trip or going to represent U.S. trade and manufacturing interests abroad.

Cord Sterling, vice president of legislative affairs for the Aerospace Industries Association, concedes that this year has been a little strange.

“The level of participation across the U.S. government may be lower than previous years and, while we usually do not get confirmation until just before the air show on who will be able to attend, we sometimes have a little more clarity at this point in time,” he said.

Nonetheless, Sterling says it is critical to have high-level U.S. officials come to the air show.

“It’s huge across the board,” he told CQ Roll Call. “Think of it as a trade delegation.”

According to Sterling, foreign competitors, and countries such as Russia and France, have a strong government presence at the international air show. During pitches for defense and commercial contracts, for example, he said his team will leave a meeting and pass by another country’s delegation walking in.

Walking in with the foreign competitors will be the president.

“By that I mean the president of the foreign country,” he said. “And they are there as a sign that they support the goods and services and the jobs that come with them when you buy their products. While we may not get that same level of attendance, several governors are there to show support, and increase jobs for their states, and a handful of senators usually attend, which shows that the U.S. cares about promoting trade and advancing U.S. interests.”

CQ Roll Call contacted all 100 Senate offices, with special attention to members of the Senate Aerospace Caucus, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and the Senate Armed Services Committee who had previously attended the air show.

Of the 100 senators we contacted only two — Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. — confirmed plans to attend the trade show. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is a probable attendee.

“He has attended in the past,” Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul said. “He is on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and is a former Navy pilot, so he’s had a strong interest in aerospace technology and issues.

“And, of course, there are Iowa companies who will participate in the show,” she added.

Mikulski spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight said her boss’s position as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee makes it crucial that she attends the trade show as “an advocate for American industry.”

Other senators who have attended in past years have decided to skip this year, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“Sen. Graham has been in the past, as the Boeing 747 is incredibly important to our state’s economy,” Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said in an email.

Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, himself a pilot, has gone to the air show in years past, but, according to his office, the senator will not attend this year.

Some hedging before the event is to be expected. It happens every year before the air show.

The normal drill is that a senator’s office will say the senator will not be going to Paris or Hampshire, and then a couple of days before the trip is slated to begin, he or she will suddenly decide to go on the trip.

Once at the air show, members and their staffs will get a private tour, getting an inside track on the latest technologies in the commercial, defense and space sectors. The rest of the week will be a whirl of meetings and events.

“Members of Congress who attend the air shows will engage with their foreign counterparts,” Sterling said. The international competitors and partners will have opportunities to discuss defense security and compete on various bids — commercial and military.

“It’s a good forum for fostering discussion, educating [lawmakers] about what is out there,” he said. And it isn’t just those companies that have factories to build the frame of the aircraft. Sterling said it’s about the whole supply chain.

“These are high-paying jobs that every country in the world wants in their economy, so you see it would be certainly helpful for senators to go over there and do everything they can to attract jobs to the U.S. and their own home states,” he said, adding that “when senators go, that is a symbol of the U.S. showing up.”

So, the lesson? Optics go both ways.

“It will be very noticeable if there’s no senior-level U.S. leaders at the air show,” Sterling told CQ Roll Call.

The rest of the world will know for sure once summer financial disclosures for the Senate have been filed.

Warren Rojas, Emily Cahn and Julie Ershadi contributed to this report.

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