I-Team Report: Senators' Spring Break in China

April 21, 2011 4:43:22 AM PDT
Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin is currently on a week-long trip to the Far East with nine other top U.S. Senators -- and their wives -- all paid for with federal tax money.

Such congressional trips are commonplace during legislative breaks but are nearly impossible for taxpayers to track.

Spring break in China, winter recess in Mexico, summertime in Italy -- those are among the venues for congressional delegations known in Washington by the shorthand 'codel.'

There have been 'codels' this spring break to far less relaxing locations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Guam and the Philippines. The China trip that Sen. Durbin is on is being led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The trip includes spouses.

The delegation in China is just one of several foreign congressional trips now under way.

In China with Sen. Reid of Nevada, are top Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York, Barbara Boxer from California and three Republican senators including Richard Shelby of Alabama and the Senate's second -ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin, seen in video at a meeting Wednesday with Chinese officials.

Mr. Durbin's office did not put out an agenda for the week-long trip but his twitter page dated last Friday just says he's in China and resume tweeting next week. The senator's office did provide the I-Team with this itinerary:

  • Beginning in Hong Kong for meetings with Illinois companies including Abbott Labs, Caterpillar and Motorola
  • Then to three cities in China for meetings with clean energy developers, engineers, local officials and students; diplomats and Chinese government leaders.
  • In Beijing and elsewhere on the journey, the senators, staffers and their spouses, are all ferried by U.S. Military aircraft and in diplomatic caravans.

    Spouses are not invited to the high level government discussions and other official business, even though their travel expenses are paid.

    Sen. Durbin's wife, Loretta, has accompanied him on the trip. According to a spokesman for the senator, "it is traditional for delegations of this kind to extend an invitation to spouses." When asked for her itinerary the I-Team was told, "I don't have a separate itinerary for spouses."

    "I am not aware of spouses going on trips that the public pays for. I think that's obviously a bad idea if the public is paying for it. What I want the public to understand is some travel is important," said Rep. Mike Quigley, (D) Chicago.

    In Chicago Wednesday night, freshman congressman Mike Quigley stressed that he is not criticizing colleagues or the trips they take. Quigley has introduced legislation that for the first time would require members of congress to disclose details of their official trips.

    "The information we are talking about is where did you go, who went on the trip, how much did it cost, how were you reimbursed and so forth for your expenses in extraordinary detail. And again, we want it online in within 48 hours in an easy-to-read format," said Quigley.

    A spokesman for Sen. Durbin also says that his wife is prohibited from soliciting for her own business while on the China trip. Loretta Durbin is vice president of Government Affairs Specialists Inc. or GASii. It is a public affairs consulting firm headquarters in Springfield that has a lobbying license and lists corporate, government and labor clients.

    Central Indiana congressman Dan Burton is said to be planning a tax-funded 'codel' trip next month to three of Europe's most attractive cities, Dublin, Vienna and Prague, to talk security, finances and U.S. relations. But there will be no accountability on that trip or any others. A recent report by the congressional research service finds, "there is no single source that identifies all foreign travel by the house or senate, numbers of trips, destinations, who went or total costs".