The political junket. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
Fourteen representatives did it in 1986; they endured a grueling 14-day tour of South America made more bearable by the comforting presence of 14 spouses and 16 staffers. The State Department has just coughed up the government cables detailing the rigors of this trip -- 16 months after we asked for them.
If Congress is looking for ways to deal with the deficit, it need look no further than the bills for this trip. (By the way, fearless fiscal expert Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat who is chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, was along on the junket.)
Our reporters Stewart Harris and Jennifer Smith pored over dozens of documents from the trip. To the lawmakers' credit, we found that they did manage to squeeze in meetings with the highest officials in every country they visited.
''Squeeze'' is the operative word. The lawmakers held official meetings on only five days of the two-week trip, and some of those meetings lasted only a few minutes. The rest of the time was spent shopping, sightseeing and lazing around on the taxpayers' dollar. To be exact, $216,843.01 for room and board and $148,824 for the Air Force jet that transported them.
The congressional delegation, led by former speaker Tip O'Neill, visited Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
Members of Congress routinely tie up valuable military aircraft for questionable trips. The jet that flew the lawmakers from Andrews Air Force Base to various South American spots was a VC-137, the military version of a Boeing 707. In 1986, it cost the military $7,615 an hour to fly the plane.
When they are aboard, our elected freeloaders rely on American embassy pesonnel as if they were tour guides. Our embassy in Venezuela had to ask Washington for more money to pay for rental cars, interpreters and overtime for the embassy staff because of the trip.
On the first full day in South America, while the lawmakers were tied up talking to Brazilian officials in Brasilia, the spouses were treated to a slide show about the country and a private shopping bazaar arranged at the embassy club so they could paw over gems, embroidered linens and stuffed piranha. The spouses later lunched at Eron Hotel, chosen for its scenic view, and then toured the city, according to the cables.
After only one day in Brazil's capital, the delegation jetted to Rio de Janeiro for what a declassified cable dryly described as a ''well-deserved rest after a heavy congressional schedule and packed visit to Brasilia.'' We're exhausted just thinking about it.
In Rio, the delegation spent one hour with a local politician. The rest of the three-day stay was for fun. Not to worry, though. The taxpayers didn't pay for the gala dinners in Rio. Executives of General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and Hughes Tool Co. flew to Rio from the United States to wine and dine the lawmakers at three banquets.
The next stop was Buenos Aires, where the delegation demanded better rooms than the ones reserved for them by the embassy. Their ruffled dignity was soothed by relocation to the upper floors of the Sheraton Towers and by shopping tours of leather and jewelry factories.
The tireless spouses found enough energy for more shopping in Caracas, while the lawmakers visited heads of state. Then everyone took a day off to swim, golf and play tennis at the Club Caraballeda, a transformed coffee plantation overlooking the ocean.
Weary from the frantic pace of foreign diplomacy, the delegation rested up for three days in Santo Domingo, before one day of meetings. And then the Air Force hauled them home.
No doubt the next stop was the tax accountant, with the receipts for all those deductible business expenses.
In addition to O'Neill and Rostenkowski, the congressional party included Edward Boland (D-Mass.), Joseph McDade (R-Pa.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Norman Lent (R-N.Y.), Pete Stark (D-Calif.), Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), John Murtha (D-Pa.), Marty Russo (D-Ill.), George Miller (D-Calif.), Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), William Lowery (R-Calif.) and Norman Sisisky (D-Va.).