Lawmakers nix campaigning over summer recess to study abroad

While some members of Congress dedicated the entire summer recess to campaigning for reelection, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) found himself dodging mortar attacks in Afghanistan, Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) spent time visiting hospitals in Ethiopia and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) met with King Abdullah II in Jordan.

The late-summer break often means 24/7 campaign time for lawmakers during election years, but they still have their policy duties to attend to. And with few lengthy breaks from their legislative schedule, summer is one of the only times they can go on fact-finding and outreach trips overseas, or congressional delegations (codels), as they’re called, even if it does take them thousands of miles away from their districts.

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One of the most top-secret codels this summer involved a whirlwind visit to Jordan and Israel for Holt, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

“We were in the air almost as much as we were on the ground,” Holt said of the two-day trip.

The three members of the House Appropriations Committee’s Select Intelligence Oversight panel talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his first meeting with U.S. officials since Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed in the U.S. earlier this summer, Holt said.

“We felt that we could actually be helpful — not that we’re negotiators — but we could help in the process a little bit,” he said.

Holt also met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whom he described as “a marvelous person and a great friend to the United States.” Holt said he and his colleagues balanced out the meetings with the heads of state with a series of intelligence-related meetings with other officials.

One thing Holt had to get used to on the trip was the security detail that followed him and the other lawmakers.

“We were traveling with a security detail most of the time,” he said. “In fact, it was a little more than I’d have liked. You walk out of your room, and there’s somebody there to escort you wherever you go. I prefer to move around a little bit more freely.”

One of the most common trips for members of Congress is to Iraq and Afghanistan, where many meet with troops, usually from their district. Wilson likes to take pictures with them and print them at a local drugstore in South Carolina so that he can send them to the troops along with a note of encouragement.

But the Middle East countries are also some of the most dangerous destinations for codels, and Wilson said while he was waiting to fly out of the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, one side of the airfield came under mortar and rocket fire. He got to safety and said he was never in any great danger.

Wilson has been criticized for taking codels in the past, he said, with people calling the trips junkets, or vacations, on the taxpayer’s dime. But Wilson, the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee’s Military Personnel subcommittee, says he travels there to help the troops. On this past trip, for instance, he said he was able to expedite a backlogged order for spare parts for soldiers’ vehicles.

“I am very honored and proud to go on these trips and I see this as a very important part of my job,” Wilson said. “People opposed to me have identified these types of trips as junkets, but they need to be aware that we’re in circumstances where we wear body armor and need to know where the bomb shelters are, and I don’t consider that a junket.”

Though not an official codel, Richardson and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) went with the humanitarian group CARE on a three-day trip to Ethiopia. Their goal was to explore how to better direct the U.S. government’s investments in maternal, child and newborn health and also to look into the USAID programs in the country.

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Because the trip was so brief, Richardson said, she spent most of her time in meetings. In one of those meetings, she heard from Catherine Hamlin, an 86-year-old doctor who runs one of the largest and most renowned hospitals for women and girls who have been victims of genital mutilation.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) went on one of the longest trips this summer,traveling with Reps. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) to Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Rep.Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) joined them in Afghanistan.

As the chairman of the Science and Technology Committee’s Energy and the Environment subcommittee, Baird said he was especially interested in gauging the development of Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s natural resources.

“They’re making some progress,” Baird said. “They’ve got a lot of hydro and mineral reserves. The challenge is how to extract them and give them an ideal security situation and deal with the transportation limits in the country.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) also went to Afghanistan, where she toured special-operations outposts with Reps. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry briefed the group, and the lawmakers got to sit in on behind-the-scenes intelligence briefings with special-forces soldiers.

With their packed itineraries, the flights are often the only time members have to catch up on sleep, talk about what they’ve seen with their travel companions or just unwind.

While Lummis’s group was flying back from Kabul to the country of Georgia, she said she tried to keep her eyes open, so that she could take advantage of the flight time, but simply could not.

“Everybody was so tired, and so hot and so ready for a cold drink,” she said with a smile. “But before we got up in the air, I fell asleep. And I just could not wake myself up. And I wanted desperately to. When we got to Georgia, it was pretty clear that the other four had not been asleep.”

A midair happy hour? “That may have been the case,” she said with a laugh.

This story was updated at 3 p.m.