Our recent series on congressional junketing prompted howls of protest from lawmakers who claimed our portrayals of their trips abroad were unfair. How dare we question their need, indeed their right, to serve the taxpayers by viewing the problem areas of the world?
The truth is, we didn't. Not all of them, anyway. Our associate Jim Lynch examined 23 different trips taken during the January recess by 74 members of Congress. The lawmakers traveled through 34 countries, including South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Thailand, Taiwan, Tahiti, French Guiana, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Antarctica.
Of these trips, we cited two that sounded suspiciously like thinly disguised vacations. One was a trip led by Rep. Earl Hutto (D-Fla.) through the South Pacific and to Antarctica to witness a Coast Guard icebreaker doing the job it was designed for. The other was a sojourn through South America that ended on the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
It was our description of this voyage that caused the most heartburn on Capitol Hill. One member of the delegation, Rep. Marilyn Lloyd (D-Tenn.), indignantly told a journalist in Chattanooga that the trip was a "rigorous scientific fact-finding mission." Rep. Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.) -- who led six members of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, four spouses, 13 staffers, an astronaut and four military escorts on the 13-day journey -- called to say that our account was misleading.
Roe sent us a report to substantiate how hard the delegation had worked. It disclosed that the group had met with 20 government officials in five countries. Plans had been discussed for establishing a Pan-American space agency and for a joint effort to launch a scientific satellite.
On the Galapagos Islands, according to the committee report, the lawmakers had discussed the prospect of U.S. assistance for a new planetarium due to open soon in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito.
Given these steadfast denials, you'd think we made the story up. We didn't. We spoke to many sources familiar with details of the trip, and we examined itineraries sent to the State Department by the various countries the legislators visited.
Not surprisingly, these documents contain references to activities not discussed in the committee's report. Only a few of the daily itineraries we examined contained plans for more than three hours of official meetings.
The trip began with an excursion to the former penal colony on Devil's Island, off French Guiana. Three hours were scheduled in French Guiana for touring a technical center, listening to lectures and visiting satellite launch pads, but an "alternative morning program" called for a trip to the village of Sinnamary, known for handicrafts.
There is no telling how much the trip cost. By our estimate, hotel arrangements alone probably totaled more than $20,000, and the Air Force C22 the entourage used cost about $100,000 to fly.
MINI-EDITORIAL: Kudos to Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), who declined the Galapagos leg of the Science, Space and Technology Committee's junket after five days in French Guiana and Brazil. His work "had been completed," he said.