Originally created 08/30/98

Georgia lawmakers visit countries on tax money



WASHINGTON -- Globe-trotting Georgia lawmakers made official visits to 31 foreign countries on four continents during the past 15 months, billing taxpayers for more than $50,000 in expenses, congressional travel records show.

Eight of Georgia's 13 congressmen and senators made a total of 15 trips abroad on the taxpayers' tab since May of last year.

Together, they spent more than 100 days on foreign soil, often accompanied by their spouses and traveling on government jets.

"I'm not going to say there's a lot of fun to it," said Rep. Mac Collins of Hampton, the most traveled member of the Georgia delegation with four official foreign trips to nine different countries in the past 15 months.

"It's an experience to go to these different countries, to meet with their leaders, to get a little bit of perspective of what they do and their approach to government, but there's a lot of long hours in every day," he said.

The trips typically are taken during congressional recesses and involve discussions with foreign government and business leaders.

When a delegation uses a military aircraft, spouses travel for free, although lawmakers pay for their meals and other expenses.

Lawmakers insist that such trips are an invaluable tool in understanding the U.S. role in international affairs.

Some critics, however, contend that they often are little more than sightseeing ventures paid for by taxpayers.

"The justification to travel half way around the globe is sometimes slender," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union.

He said there should be "tighter control over the frequency and number of lawmakers who travel."

Congress requires little disclosure of the actual costs of such trips.

Members must report what they spend for meals, lodging and commercial transportation.

But they do not have to disclose what frequently is the biggest expense of such travel -- the cost of the military aircraft that ferry them around the globe.

Mr. Collins' expenses totaled $11,028 on three of his trips, two of which involved commercial transportation.

Expense records have not been filed for his fourth trip, a 12-day journey earlier this month to Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal.

Four other Georgia lawmakers -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Marietta, Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Lithonia, Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany and Rep. Bob Barr of Smyrna -- each made two official trips in the past 15 months.

And Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Rep. John Linder of Atlanta made one trip each at the taxpayers' expense.

Mr. Gingrich led a delegation to Israel, Jordan and Italy during the Memorial Day recess.

The only expenses reported from the trip, which Mr. Linder also made, was $371 per member for meals and lodging in Jordan.

Earlier this month, shortly after Congress adjourned for the summer, Mr. Gingrich lead a delegation to Ireland for a weeklong survey of the Northern Island peace process and Ireland's economic success.

But he also found time to explore his own roots in Ireland's remote northwest corner of Donegal, where his grandmother's O'Doherty clan and its genealogical research center are based.

"When we were growing up, my dad was in the Army, we moved all over the world, and it never occurred to me to stop and look up my roots," Mr. Gingrich said during the trip.

"I knew my mother was Irish, that's all. But when you're standing at the ancestral castle ... it comes alive in a way that, until you've done it, you can't appreciate."

Ms. McKinney, a member of the House International Relations Committee, made two trips to Africa this year, spending five days in Zimbabwe and Zaire and three days in Uganda and Rwanda.

Her expenses, including commercial airfare for both trips, totaled $16,497.

Mr. Bishop, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, spent 10 days in China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea last August.

He also spent eight days in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand last January. His expenses totaled $11,198, including one trip on commercial airlines.

Mr. Coverdell's only official foreign trip was a two-day journey to Guatemala last December when he met with government leaders to discuss food safety issues after the U.S. banned the import of Guatemalan raspberries. His expenses totaled $1,368.

Mr. Cleland traveled to Great Britain, Germany, Bosnia and Belgium during the Easter recess earlier this year to meet with officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and with U.S. troops in Bosnia.

The expense report for that trip had not been filed before the Senate recessed for the summer.