While there is no doubt some enjoyment in foreign travel, the real reason members of Congress travel is to learn about issues that are important to exercising the constitutional duties to which they were elected to perform. Members of Congress regularly vote on issues of international significance, including whether to send American men and women into battle in foreign lands or sending increasingly limited US dollars overseas to support nations of strategic significance. The knowledge to make these decisions can’t be fully gained by reading a briefing paper or listening to some expert. Don’t we want members of Congress to be smart and to make independent judgments when they vote? Wasn’t it only a few years ago that President George W. Bush was ridiculed for not having traveled widely before becoming President? Another purpose of travel is to show solidarity with allies. When a delegation of members of Congress arrives in a foreign country, it sends a strong signal that it is important to the US and our strategic interests. 

Congress can’t seem to win in this debate. Members of Congress are criticized when they travel on the government’s dime. This is notwithstanding the fact that congressional rules have been significantly tightened and now require greater disclosure, accountability and provide fewer opportunities for entertainment. But this wasn’t even the case in the swimming episode; that trip was sponsored by a non-profit organization and not the government. Yet even when paid for by private parties, the details of such travel must be disclosed and available for public scrutiny. With that information in hand, voters can make their own judgment about their member of Congress and whether his or her travel was appropriate.     

Like it or not, the nation’s fate is inextricably tied to the rest of the world. Consider the European debt crisis as one example. Shouldn’t members of Congress to be aware of what’s going on in the world, if only to protect America from foreign contagions. And while some may want Congress only to focus laser-like on the budget deficit or health care or any of the other issues that are receiving attention in this election season, the simple fact is that members of Congress will have to vote on a host of foreign policy issues. 

The swim in the Sea of Galilee will soon be forgotten. But hopefully it will not lead to rules that restrict members of Congress from gaining the experiences and information that they need to do a better job of deciding how to spend taxpayer dollars overseas.

Spulak is a King & Spalding partner in the Government Advocacy and Public Policy Practice Group. He served as Democratic staff director and general counsel of the House Committee on Rules, and as general counsel to the House.