Nicaragua, Tibet... Wish you were here

Ben McKay, a lobbyist for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, is headed for a bungalow on a Pacific beach in Nicaragua. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) will seek refuge in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. And Gary Palmquest, legislative director for Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), will vacation at the family home in Los Oslos, Calif., on the central coast.

Whether they are spa-ing at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., touring the vineyards of Northern California or getting away from it all on a congressional delegation, or codel, in Tibet, members, lobbyists and aides are making the most of August.

Nicaragua: It’s the new Costa Rica. So says McKay, who plans to rough it for two weeks in the Central American country that was racked by civil war in the eighties.

Some destinations are less adventurous. One female Republican aide will be honeymooning in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

In these dog days of August, most lawmakers, lobbyists and staff members are flocking to destinations that will allow them to rest and relax as much as possible. On the other hand, another female aide is leading a Cub Scout camp.

While August is notorious for respite, many offices are being careful about appearances in a year rife with travel scandals.

“The majority of our staff’s travel is to the district for work. … We’re ‘freshman vulnerable,’” said Heather Janik, spokeswoman for Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). “Dave is not going anywhere. He’s back to back-to-back booked [with work].”

A Democratic aide remarked, “Our office is pretty much grounded this summer. Our chief of staff got very anxious about our staffers going out to our district, still concerned about the DeLay/travel issue and how it may come back on Dems,” referring to concerns about how trips that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has taken have been paid for.

A Republican staffer added, “A lot of members are going on codels. There is more caution for staff members to go, or at least for companies to organize trips, because of the public perception surrounding junkets.”

McKay’s Nicaraguan vacation will likely involve both five-star and one-star accommodations. He will rent an economy car, stay in $6-$30-a-night hotels, one on Ometepe Island in Lake Managua, which he says has fresh-water sharks. The hotel advertised air conditioning, he wrote in an e-mail, “but when I called and inquired further, I learned that ‘air conditioning’ in English translates to ‘fan’ in Spanish, at least in parts of Nicaragua.”

He said that he’s taking the usual tropical precautions: “I got some Aralen,” a brand name of an anti-malaria drug, chloroquine.

The lobbyist said he intends to cap off his stay by treating himself to the beachside bungalow: “Mostly I just want to spend time with the Nicos, see new things and practice my Spanish.”
Nancy Wall, deputy press secretary for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said her boss would spend some of August “visiting several elementary and high schools,” and, as he has no summer house, would spend downtime at home in Mobile.

Brian Walsh, a legislative assistant for Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), has taken two three-day jaunts to his home state of Massachusetts. During one trip, he and some old friends sailed in a race around Martha’s Vineyard aboard a friend’s boat, the Ballyhoo. Under normal conditions, the 60-mile race would take eight to 10 hours to complete. But this year there was little wind and the crew got stranded 30 miles short of the finish line.

The race finished early, and the Ballyhoo began motoring back to Edgartown. Around midnight, it ran out of gas and the crew was forced to anchor. The captain’s father, who was ashore, paid a fisherman participating in the annual Vineyard Shark Tournament to take him out to find them in the middle of Vineyard Sound at 2 a.m.

“Thankfully, he came with additional fuel, food and beer to get us the rest of the way home,” Walsh said. “All told, we left the harbor at 8 a.m. on Saturday and didn’t get back until 4 a.m. Sunday. A long day, but always worth it.”

Dan Berger, a lobbyist for America’s Community Bankers, plans to vacation in the mountains of Hayesville, N.C., with his wife, Aimee, and their baby daughter, Shelby. His in-laws built a new house there, and Berger insists there will be few political matters on his mind: “I am going fly-fishing, golfing, fly-fishing, golfing, fly-fishing, golfing, fly-fishing, golfing, fly-fishing, golfing — in that order.”

No matter the number of getaways planned by members, staff and lobbyists, there are always those diehards who refuse to slow down.

Rep. Tom Tancredo’s (R-Colo.) August has the feel of a presidential campaign. He has already gone on a speaking tour of South Carolina and western Colorado, and he has jetted to San Diego for an immigration forum. Now it’s on to Minnesota to tour with Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.).

Tancredo plans to tour Iowa with Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Steve King (R-Iowa), followed by a tour through Iowa’s small towns to discuss immigration. Then he’s going to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, where he’ll catch up with his wife, Jackie, and speak at the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

“I’m not kidding,” said Tancredo spokesman Will Adams. “This guy works his rear off.”