Diving and snorkeling at Australia's Great Barrier Reef, watching New Year's fireworks in New Zealand, and sleeping in a luxury Hawaiian hotel is the vacation of a lifetime — unless you're a member of Congress. Then it's a fact-finding mission to study climate change.
Ten lawmakers — six Democrats and four Republicans — spent 11 days on an international junket in some of the most breathtaking spots on Earth. Then they stuck taxpayers with the $500,000-plus bill.
According to the Wall Street Journal, six spouses also made the journey at the end of 2007, and their expenses for lodging and travel also came out of taxpayers' pockets.
“The trip we made was more valuable than 100 hearings," Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., told the Journal. “Are there members of Congress who take trips somewhat recreationally? Perhaps. Is this what this trip was about? Absolutely not.”
Baird, the lead congressman on the exotic junket, was chairman of the House Science Committee's subcommittee on research and science education at the time. The trip ostensibly was to gather information on global warming and how federal funds are used for scientific projects.
Joining Baird were Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.; Mike Ross, D-Ark.; Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.; Charlie Melancon, D-La.; John Tanner, D-Tenn.; Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas; Bob Inglis, R-S.C.; Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.; and Adrian Smith, R-Neb. Spouses accompanied Ross, Carnahan, Melancon, Tanner, Neugebauer, and Lucas.
During their adventure, the 10 lucky lawmakers visited the Great Barrier Reef, Australia's rain forest, a research station at the South Pole, a penguin colony, and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach.
The final tab? The lawmakers reported the total cost at merely $103,000, according to the Journal. But that figure doesn't include flight costs because commercial airlines were not used. Instead, Air Force jets ferried the participants to their far-flung destinations. The Journal used Pentagon figures to estimate that the flight expenses brought the overall cost of the junket to more than $500,000.
In defending the trip, Baird told the Journal that what he learned while on the 11-day adventure was “profoundly important to how I do this job.”
Lucas told the newspaper: “There are a lot more glamorous things to do than hang out on the South Pole. I never want to wear that many clothes again.”
According to a Journal analysis of taxpayer-funded travel for members of Congress, lawmakers spent about $13 million on international trips in 2008 — nearly 10 times the cost in 1995.
The delegation's journey began on Dec. 29, 2007, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where participants boarded an Air Force Boeing 737, known as a C-40 and modified for business-class travel. First stop? Christchurch, New Zealand, where Baird watched fireworks to ring in the new year.
On Jan. 2, 2008, lawmakers left their spouses behind and flew to the Antarctic research center McMurdo Station and were advised not to forget their cameras. On Jan. 3, they headed to the South Pole Station research center, where they were encouraged to bring any mail that they might want postmarked by the South Pole post office.
After returning to McMurdo Station, the lawmakers toured a penguin colony, or rookery, and met with NASA scientists. “Some of the most important science in the world is being done down there,” Baird told the Journal.
The congressional contingent then left the frozen bottom of the world for a more inviting locale: Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Baird went diving, while Sanchez snorkeled. Just two days in Australia cost U.S. taxpayers more than $50,000, the Journal reported.
When the lawmakers finally headed back to America, they made sure their itinerary included Hawaii, where they visited Hickam Air Force Base. They also enjoyed a night at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Oahu's famed Waikiki Beach.
The hotel's Web site describes the resort as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific” and “an exclusive enclave for luxury and romance.” When Newsmax checked the hotel's online reservation center, the cheapest room at the Royal Hawaiian was priced at an average rate of $300 a night.
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