For lawmakers traveling abroad, remember, appearances matter on the taxpayer’s dime


At the Great Wall of China, Reps. Aaron Schock and Kristi Noem do what Americans are wont to do. (Rep. Aaron Schock)

Practicing a little cultural diplomacy, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) stopped to take a selfie (of course they did) on the Great Wall of China during their trip to Asia as part of a congressional delegation last week.

Schock posted the picture to his private Instagram account, with the caption “Great Wall selfie.” The picture shows them with their mouths wide open, conveying that “Hey, look at me!” expression popular in selfies.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The codel over spring break was led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Also on the trip were Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.). Kay Granger (R-Tex.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). Gone a week, they visited Japan, South Korea and ended their trip in China.

While we admit it’d be difficult to imagine visiting China and not seeing the Great Wall, visiting these great wonders on the taxpayer dime is a no-no on the Loop’s “Guide to Codels” (see why below).

The lawmakers started their trip in Hawaii — they had to swing by to pick up their token Democrat, of course — where Schock fit in a little me-time in the Pacific. He posted a shirtless picture of himself surfing with the hashtag #icouldlivehere. (You’ll have to Google that one yourselves.)

Schock went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday morning, and co-host Mika Brzezinski derided him for posting a picture in which he looks more sex symbol than serious legislator. She told the young congressman, “Other people have to post hot pictures of you, not you, okay?”

“I’ll keep that in mind, thanks,” Schock said.

Keeping up appearances

The Cantor codel, the week-long swing through Asia over Easter break, reminds us that it’s time to reprise and update the official In the Loop Guide to Codels.

First published in 2007, the guide is designed to help lawmakers — and senior officials in theexecutive branch — resist the temptation to take a taxpayer-funded junket with that long-suffering spouse on a “fact-finding trip” to exotic places on a military jet. These trips are ultra-first-class, with all manner of pampering — even a doctor on board — and so the temptation is enormous.

The risk: Despite your absurd claims that “security” concerns require a secret itinerary, the press sometimes finds out where you’ve gone. This can lead to most unwelcome publicity.

So, for travelers who want to avoid snarky press coverage, we offer the following.

Rule 1: Try to travel to places that have a direct relationship to important foreign policy issues. In addition to such places as Pakistan, India, China and Russia, this would include war-torn African countries, the Gaza Strip, Syria and eastern Ukraine.

Note: Voters are becoming wise to the shallowness of lawmakers doing quickie trips to Afghanistan, having pictures taken with the troops from their districts — troops rounded up specially for the occasion — and given guided tours so they can thump their chests and say, “I’ve been to Kabul.” Also easy to spot those quick trips to justify a slow return trip meandering through Europe.

Rule 2: Ditch the spouse. Spouses raise red flags for reporters. Reporters are no longer buying the dodge about spouses traveling “at no extra cost.” Understaffed embassy personnel have to schedule separate events and provide vans, maybe security, and guides and so forth for day trips, sightseeing and shopping. Given chronic understaffing at U.S. embassies, this is hardly what those folks need to be doing. (Cantor’s office says some spouses did tag along on the Asia voyage.)

Corollary: On a generic “meetings with foreign leaders” trip, avoid lingering. Spouses tend to lengthen trips, with evenings devoted to receptions and dinners — as opposed to meeting with dissidents in hiding, human rights advocates, harassed religious leaders and refugees.

Rule 3: Avoid going north in the summer or south in the winter. Never go anywhere in Italy, at any time, on the taxpayers’ dime. European travel in general, especially in the early fall or the spring, will raise eyebrows. Winter trips to the Caribbean are inherently suspect. (Transportation Department officials should avoid the annual Global Pontoon Safety Conference in Bali.)

Rule 4: Do not go to various wonders of the world: Petra, the pyramids, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Iguazu Falls, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat or African game parks. (The Cantor delegation violated this rule, but we trust they spent a day at the 1,300-year-old wall to pick up useful lessons from early Chinese border-security efforts.)

Rule 5: Do not blow off intelligence briefings at the embassies. You are there, after all, to gather facts. Embassy folks may, or may not, have some.

Rule 6: Do not overload your military aircraft with the bargain booty — rugs, vases, golf clubs, artifacts and such — that you hope to sneak in without regular customs inspection.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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