Roughly 16 Senate Finance Committee staffers are wrapping up a whirlwind 13-day trip to Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand, even as federal agencies have been forced by sequestration to limit employee travel and participation in out-of-town conferences.
The trip by Republican and Democratic committee staffers, set to end Wednesday, was described by a Senate aide as important to preparations for the upcoming debate on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement being negotiated among the United States and 10 other countries.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said it is impossible to know from the outside the importance of the trip. It might make some sense for staffers to be going instead of lawmakers, he said, if they are more instrumental in drawing up agreements.
“But every time one of these trips comes to light, questions are going to be asked,” Sepp said. “Federal-agency workers or members of the public reading about them on the Internet are going to be wondering: ‘Do the rules of the sequester apply to Congress, too?’ ”
The Senate aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the staffers—who flew commercially—were all experts in international trade and economic issues and that the agenda included meetings with senior government officials, trade and industry leaders, and nongovernmental organizations “to address emerging issues and challenges in the TPP negotiations.”
“Working on international trade negotiations requires international travel,” the aide said, adding that some are “not too pleased that they had to miss Easter with their families."
As for lawmakers, the customary rash of overseas “codels,” or congressional trips, over spring break—at least those that have been announced publicly—seems to have diminished, though they have not disappeared completely.
For instance, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Hoeven of North Dakota, along with Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, are on a four-day trip through Israel, Jordan, and Turkey this week.
In addition, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has traveled to Japan, China, and South Korea. His trip to Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul was geared to meeting political and business leaders to discuss ways to strengthen strategic partnerships in the region and create new opportunities for growth and jobs in the U.S., his office said.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner last month told Republicans that he would no longer authorize the use of military aircraft for congressional delegation trips, meaning members would have to fly commercial. That is what a House delegation traveling to Rome for the investiture of Pope Francis did the week prior to the break. Taxpayers will still have to foot those costs, but it is not as expensive as a military plane.
In February, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo that offered guidance to federal agencies on how to deal with the cuts in their budgets, which were mandated by the sequester reductions that began March 1. Among the suggestions was “increased scrutiny” to “incurring obligations for new training, conferences, and travel.”
Agencies have responded by scaling back their travel. For instance, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued a memo saying the numbers of employees that can attend domestic conferences is capped and that travel to most international meetings is prohibited.
Sepp said that, in such an environment, it would be fair to give travel for congressional staff the same scrutiny.
But the committee aide defended the trip, and said it would stand up to such scrutiny, noting that the U.S. and 10 other countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement represent more than 40 percent of global trade.
“The goal of the TPP is to promote economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of U.S. jobs,” said the aide, adding, “Nobody’s going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.”