Election-year jitters, new Pelosi rules decrease recess trips

Lawmakers say that heightened election-year politics and harsher travel rules are behind the decrease in member CODELs over the Memorial Day recess.

Those members who opted to go on congressional delegation trips this week will travel to hotspots and combat zones around the world, according to lawmakers familiar with the count of CODELs.

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House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who hustled to Afghanistan on an intelligence panel fact-finding trip, told The Hill that he heard “through the pipeline” that members didn’t want the grief associated with foreign travel on the taxpayer’s dime.

“I’m hearing that people think it’s not worth the aggravation — you know, [it’s an] election year and the controversy. But hey, if anyone wants to attack me for going to Afghanistan, then make my day,” King said of his visit to the war-torn nation.

Outgoing Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who was scheduled to be wheels-up en route to Iraq last Thursday, called it a shame that his colleagues were opting out of CODELs due to potential political haymaking.

“It’s because of the optics in a political year — if you go anywhere but a war zone you get whacked, which is too bad because there are important things to learn outside of combat zones,” the six-term lawmaker said in an interview with The Hill.

But Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) pointed to at least two delegation trips to spots other than war zones.

“There’s a North Atlantic [Alliance] 30-year established parliamentary exchange and there’s a transatlantic dialogue exchange,” Berman revealed, but he did not say which members were going on those official visits.

For his part, the 14-term lawmaker opted to travel with the Aspen Institute to Tunis, Tunisia, for a summit on political Islam. But that trip was not charged to the taxpayers.

Other lawmakers blamed the drop in travel on new restrictions imposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) less than two weeks ago.

Pelosi called the reforms an effort to increase transparency and accountability for members going overseas on taxpayer-funded congressional delegations.

Those fresh rules posed major headaches for a CODEL to Afghanistan, led by Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell (N.C.).

According to a participant in that delegation, which included Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), John Kline (R-Minn.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), committee staff spent three or four days wrangling with the speaker’s office to get a waiver for the so-called “14-hour rule.”

Under the new policy, outlined in a “CODEL reforms” memo that Pelosi sent to committee chairmen on May 13, air travel on trips less than 14 hours “may only be booked in coach/economy class consistent with Executive branch guidelines.”

But for members and staff traveling to Afghanistan with a jam-packed work schedule and a six-hour-long C-130 flight into the country after they depart their commercial plane, Hunter said it’s imperative that they get at least a full night's sleep on the flight to the region.

When in country, the six-member delegation and Armed Services Committee staff have back-to-back meetings with officials, as well as visits scheduled with the troops, over the weekend-long trip.

Hunter called the rule “stupid” because technically the CODEL qualifies for business seating on the way home from Afghanistan since they add time due to a headwind.

“Going out it’s 13.8 hours, but coming back it's 14.3 because of the headwind,” the combat veteran lawmaker said.

In the end, Hunter told The Hill that Pelosi’s office waived the rule but he called the ordeal “dumb.”

“We weren’t going to upgrade ourselves and not have staff upgraded so [we] had to get them upgraded, too. When you put it in context it’s kind of stupid,” the freshman Republican explained, noting that members who fly to European countries could be flying business class regardless.

Pelosi’s memo to the committee chairmen read “as a general rule, business-class accommodations will only be authorized if the scheduled flight time is in excess of 14 hours, consistent with rules established by the Departments of Defense and State.”

According to the federal rules posted on the General Services Administration's website on official government travel, “scheduled flight time is the flight time between the originating departure point and the ultimate arrival point including scheduled non-overnight time spent at airports during plane changes.”

“It’s so dumb because guys who are going to France, they have layovers in Ireland, and layovers count. So you go to France and you still get business class but you go to Afghanistan and you’re in coach,” Hunter said.

The Speaker's office refuted Hunter's contention that layovers factored into the 14-hour air travel time.

According to Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill, the Speaker has been intent on following Pentagon and State Department standards, which generally do not count layover time in that 14-hour window.

"Our policy is modeled on State and [the Defense Department], not GSA, which means that scheduled flight time is just that. Layovers do not count. So the scenario of flying to Ireland to go to France would never satisfy the 14-hour requirement," Hammill explained.

Hunter's colleague, Georgia GOP Rep. Jack Kingston, who also went to a hotspot over recess, was miffed at Pelosi’s reforms as well.

“For a woman who has her own airplane footed by unemployed Americans to be dictating new rules to us, is just one more sign of arrogance and audacity,” Kingston said, noting that he considered Pelosi’s directive “guidelines,” not a rules change.

According to Hammill, however, the Speaker may not have officially changed the House rules, but she "sets travel policy ... these are not guidelines, they are requirements."

Furthermore, a Democratic leadership staffer pointed out that the top-ranking House member does not have a plane.

"There is no one military aircraft that is solely designated for Speaker of the House travel. Travel to and from the District on military aircraft is based on availability of aircraft and those decisions are made by Pentagon officials," the leadership aide said, noting that the policy was instituted after 9/11 by then-President George W. Bush for security reasons.

A Democratic lawmaker who requested anonymity to speak freely told The Hill that the new rules missed the point because the public doesn’t want lawmakers to travel on CODELs, period; they aren’t paying attention to the way in which members get there.

“If the public had its way we’d crawl there on glass,” the member said.

This article was added to, and revised, at 2:26 p.m. on June 1.