Americans are not happy about the job that Congress is doing, and with very good reason. According to the results of a Gallup Poll completed last week, only 14 percent of the American people have a lot of confidence in Congress.
That's the lowest Congressional rating since Gallup started measuring confidence in American institutions in May of 1973. Even then, at the height of the Watergate scandal, Congress scored a 42 percent confidence rating. And now, Congress is rated as the worst of all 16 American institutions measured.
The results are hardly surprising when you look at how little the House and Senate actually work, their minimal accomplishments and their generosity to themselves and their families. They have not been able to pass important legislation on minimum wage, immigration reform, or anything else of importance. Instead, they spend their time raising money for themselves, bickering and passing bills to change the names of courthouses and post offices, commending winning sports teams, and suggesting that the flag be flown on Father's Day. These are their weighty concerns.
Congress Will Be Out of Session for More than 16 Weeks
In our new book, Outrage, we document the awful truth about the "Do-Nothing Congress." The fact is that they are paid at least $165,500 a year, and they hardly show up at all. In 2006, for example, Congress was only in session for 103 days, slightly more than two days a week on average. Nice work, if you can find it.
When Harry Truman criticized the "Do-Nothing Congress" in 1948, the House was in session for only 108 days!
In the current Congress, despite Speaker Pelosi's loud promise of a five-day workweek, the House schedule is laughable. The first clue that members wouldn't be working harder was when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced that the House would take a day off during the first week in session. Why? Was there a national emergency? Maybe a catastrophic storm? Not at all. It was because of the championship college football game between Oklahoma State and Florida State. Obviously oblivious to the criticisms of Congressional laziness, Hoyer explained that the work of the Congress would be suspended so that everyone could watch a football game.
How many American workers are given a day off to watch a football game?
A close look at the schedule of the House is shocking. Congress will be out of Washington for more than 16 weeks. And when they are technically in session, they don't do much. Take the month of February, for example: the House was only in session for nine days — and on three of those days, the sessions lasted less than 20 minutes, while a fourth lasted for 39 minutes. Their designated “President's Day District Work Period” is a ridiculously transparent euphemism for a vacation week — sometimes involving free travel. Right after the so-called travel "reforms" were passed, 66 members of the House traveled during February at the expense of private organizations (legal under the new rules), many of them to exotic vacation spots.
Free Trips to San Juan in February — Bring Along the Kids!
Fourteen members and their spouses spent five days of the “President's Day District Work Period” at a luxurious hotel in sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico at an Aspen Institute conference on “No Child Left Behind.” Several of the members apparently took the conference mandate quite literally and brought their own children for a free trip: Congressman Zach Wamp, of Tennessee, was joined by his son, Cody, and Congressman Jan Schakowsky, of Illinois, was accompanied by her daughter, Mary Hart. The average cost of the trip was about $7,000 per member. Only five of the 15 were members of the House Education Committee:
• Zach Wamp (R-TN)
• Melvin Watt (D-NC)
• John Tierney (D-MA)*
• Janet Schakowsky (D-IL)
• Edward Pastor (D-AZ)
• George Miller (D-CA)*
• Nita Lowey (D-NY)
• Raymond Green (D-TX)
• Diane Degette(D-CO)
• Susan Davis (D-CA)*
• Russ Holt (D-NJ)*
• Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)*
• Sam Farr (D- CA)
• Bob Etheridge(D-NC)
• Richard Lugar (R-IN)
* member, House Education and Labor Committee
Last summer, the director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program, former U.S. Senator Dick Clark, insisted, in an interview with us, that Aspen had discontinued paying for the trips of the children or siblings of members. Apparently, that policy has been changed, since two children went to San Juan and another sibling to China.
And, by the way, Speaker Pelosi has proposed that adult children be permitted to accompany members on taxpayer paid trips.
A number of the February travelers are perennial beneficiaries of the Aspen largesse. For example, while House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller may have had an interest in the "No Child Left Behind" conference, he is a serial traveler on the Aspen dime. Since 2000, he and his wife have attended a total of 30 Aspen conferences at a cost of more than $125,000, and total trips valued at over $200,000 — and only three of them were concerned with education. Mr. and Mrs. Miller traveled to Aspen conferences in:
Naples, Fla., San Juan, Vancouver, Prague, Grand Cayman, Florence, Helsinki, Punta Mita, Mexico (three times) Scottsdale, China, Barcelona (two times), Montega Bay, Jamaica, Rome, Moscow, Cancun, Venice, Dublin, Istanbul (two times), Honolulu, Krakow, and Llubjana.
In addition, Congressman Miller has traveled on government expense to:
Mexico, Cambodia (two times), Vietnam (two times), South Africa, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Laos, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel (two times), Jordan, Iraq, Italy (two times), Sudan (two times), Ghana, Liberia, and Cape Verde. (The records do not indicate whether his wife also joined him on these trips.)
The government trips consumed almost 75 days at a cost of over $65,000, excluding the airfares for military transport. And, Congressman Miller is not a member of any committee dealing with foreign relations. The Aspen trips took over 150 days! That's an average of almost 30 days each year!
Who has time to work with this kind of travel schedule?
But he's not alone.
Fellow traveler Sen. Richard Lugar is another Aspen favorite. He and his wife were on 25 other Aspen trips and visited:
Naples, Helsinki (two times), Grand Cayman, Punta Mita, Mexico (three times), Scottsdale, London, Montega Bay, Rome, Moscow, Honolulu, Cancun, Barcelona, Lausanne, Venice, Dublin, Istanbul, and Krakow.
Almost makes you want to be a Senator, doesn't it?
Other Aspen regular travelers and their wives with the number of free trips include:
• Howard Berman (D-CA) — 18
• Donald Payne (D-NJ) — 16
• Henry Waxman (D-CA) — 13
• Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) — 12
• Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) — 11
• Gene Greene (D-TX) — 11
• Barbara Boxer (D-CA) — 10
• Nita Lowey (D-NY) — 10
April in China
During the so-called “Spring District Work Period” in April, many of the same characters went on yet another Aspen trip to China for a Chinese-American relations conference at a cost of about $25,000 per couple. Only two of the travelers were on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Don Payne (D-NJ) brought his brother along. Joining the group were:
• Donald Payne (D-NJ)
• Lloyd Doggett (D-TX)
• Frederick Upton (R-MI)
• Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)
• Susan Davis (D-CA)
• Brian Baird (D-WA)
• Mike Honda (D-CA)
• Michael Castle (R-DE)
• Anna Eshoo (D-CA)
• William Clay (D-MO)
• Tom Petri (R-WI)
• Tom Udall (D-NM)
Slovenia in May
During the “Memorial Day District Work Period,” the following members went on an Aspen sponsored trip to Slovenia, no doubt tending to their district and constituents all the while they were sight-seeing. Most were accompanied by their spouse. What is truly amazing is that every single one of the participants had already attended other conferences on the same subject. Howard Berman, Henry Waxman and George Miller — and their wives — went to five separate Aspen conferences in various European capitals and a Mexican resort; Lloyd Doggett and his wife attended four. The complete list of attendees:
• Lloyd Doggett (D-TX)*
• Rush Holt (D-NJ)***
• George Miller (D-CA **
• John Tierney (D-MA)*
• Melvin Watt (D-NC)***
• Harry Waxman (D-CA)**
• Carl Levin (D-MI)***
• Phil English (R-PA)***
• Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)**
• Howard Berman (D-CA)**
* Attended four Aspen conferences on Political Islam: Mexico, Barcelona, Istanbul, and Slovenia
** Attended five Aspen conferences on Political Islam: Helsinki, Mexico, Barcelona, Istanbul, Slovenia
*** Attended two Aspen conferences on Political Islam: Istanbul, Slovenia(Holt)Mexico, Slovenia (Watt),
**** Attended three Aspen conferences on Political Islam: Barcelona, Istanbul, Slovenia
What's wrong with this picture?
Why would the Aspen Institute invite the same people back to conference after conference about the same topic in expensive and exotic places? Why are so many members invited to participate in forums that have nothing to do with their committee assignments? Why are most of the participants Democrats?
Aspen points out that it does not lobby and only wants to give Congressmen the opportunity to think about important issues away from the pressures of the Capital. Given what we know about their schedules, that's hardly a good argument for the free trips.
It's true that Aspen does not lobby, but it does develop public policy initiatives on a wide range of issues and even has a special conference for legislative staff. So, it definitely has a point of view — and usually a liberal one. There's nothing at all improper about Aspen's conferences, but the lavish foreign trips contribute to the evolving Congressional imperiousness.
What's wrong with the free travel? Well, for one, it creates a sense of entitlement. Members of Congress have gotten used to being wined, dined and flown to beautiful and expensive places. It adds to the insulation from their constituents, it takes up time that should be spent on the job they were elected to do and it basically provides tax free income for free travel.
And it's not just Aspen. Another favorite travel underwriter is the International Management and Development Fund, which hosted Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and his wife on a $20,000 trip to Germany in February. Congressman Hinchey has received over $200,000 worth of free travel since 2000. Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Mark Souder (R-IN), Tom Feeney (R-FL) and Ralph Regula (R-OH) also went to Germany.
It's not what they were elected to do. Since 2000, Aspen has spent over $4 million on 719 trips for members of Congress and their spouses and family members.
It's time for Congress to stop the free travel and focus on the important issues that need resolution. That means showing up for work and making tough decisions.
Maybe then, Americans might have some confidence in Congress.