Several congressional junketeers traveled on the taxpayers' dollar during the January recess, but the "Most Intrepid" award goes to the merry band with the mission to watch a Coast Guard cutter smash through ice near Antarctica.
But hold your admiration for these fearless travelers. To get there from here, you have to pass through Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. The trip was not without its warm days -- 10 to be exact -- spent coming and going through the sunny South Pacific. There were three days in Antarctica.
As we reported earlier, the January congressional recess brought a bumper crop of lawmakers with urgent business way down south where summertime is in full bloom.
The Antarctica delegation was led by Rep. Earl Hutto (D-Fla.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on the Coast Guard. Apparently, it was vital for seven representatives, six staffers and four military escorts to see firsthand the Coast Guard's Polar Star ice-breaker thud its way into McMurdo Sound.
A spokesman for Hutto said the committee members needed to witness the annual ice-breaking event so they could assess the Coast Guard's needs. This is a national security issue, he added. The ice-breaking fleet has shrunk to just two of the 398-foot vessels, and the committee must decide whether to push for the purchase of another ship.
In light of a $100 million cut in the Coast Guard's budget, the likelihood of Congress buying another $300 million ice-breaker is absurd, a Coast Guard spokesman told our associate Jim Lynch.
A subcommittee staffer confirmed that the visit to the ice-breaker was the major if not the lone reason for the 13-day trip for the 24-member delegation, which included the wives of five members of Congress. They needed to see the ice-breaking for "informational" reasons, he said. Apparently, Congress hasn't heard of videotape.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy base in Antarctica was not equipped to host the entire delegation. Two lawmakers, two staffers, two military escorts and the five wives had to cool their heels in New Zealand's quaint town of Christ Church while the others went to Antarctica for the ice-breaking.
After the men returned from the show, the delegation flew to Sydney, Australia, and spent another four days Down Under. In both New Zealand and Australia, the group met with members of parliament and maritime officials.
From Sydney, the group flew to Honolulu for two nights. They had spent two nights there on the way down, also, but not strictly as tourists; the delegation spent three hours touring a U.S. Coast Guard base. On the way back, they had to stop to refuel the plane.
It's not clear what American taxpayers gained from the trip, but it is fairly certain what they lost. The private C137 jet used by the delegation costs $7,445 an hour to fly, for a total aircraft cost of $369,272. The delegation spent $11,600 for lodging and staff provided by the Navy. And the representatives and their staffs were entitled to $125 a day each for expenses. Joining Hutto on the trip were Howard Coble (R-N.C.); Norman Shumway (R-Calif.); Owen Pickett (D-Va.); William Lipinski (D-Ill.), and W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (D-La.).