In light of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, we can expect a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to our elected officials and their travel. People will be very fixated on our politicians’ trips abroad and the reasons for them. This isn’t a new issue, but it is an issue that sometimes goes unnoticed and then other times receives a lot of attention (especially after controversy).
I had a friend ask me why it seems so hard for elected officials to just say no to travel, especially when it may be so obviously a junket. Having been in elected office, I can only tell you that this issue isn’t always so black and white. I traveled a few times in the four years I served and never felt like I took a single junket, but others might disagree.
When staff or some other outside interest first approached me about traveling, there were often selling points introduced up front. It starts with why the trip needed to be taken. Next was the explanation of who would be paying for the trip (taxpayers, a nonprofit, business, etc.). Occasionally, and this could be the biggest indicator of whether it would be a junket or not, they might give you validation statements: “This won’t even be noticed.” “Everybody does it.” “Nobody will care.” Sadly, sometimes those points are accurate. Now I am not excusing what happened with the Fiesta Bowl “junketeers” as they are being called, but this temptation can cloud your perspective.
The saddest part about blatant abuses is that it taints everybody. There are trips that we should have our elected officials take. Without a doubt the public receives benefit from some of these trips. The most obvious example I have is of Sen. Lamar Alexander when he was governor of Tennessee. The state’s economy was in bad shape, so he spent time traveling in the Far East, where he was able to convince a Japanese car company to build a plant in Tennessee. Without a doubt this benefited his state and probably could not have been done without direct “on-the-ground” contact.
With economic development you also run into the issue that you can’t expect an obvious result attached to each trip. Sometimes you need to cultivate relationships. A trip may not bring an exact result, but eventually it might pay off with a win such as Tennessee received.
Then you run into the question of how important is diplomacy? Does the public receive a benefit from elected officials having meetings with other elected officials from both the U.S. and abroad? The city of Phoenix has benefited greatly by elected officials traveling to Washington, D.C. to pursue grant dollars and other assistance.
Sometimes the public has the view that any travel is a “perk” and unjustified. When I was on council, I was involved in a program called River Rampage. This program took inner-city kids and youth with physical disabilities on a river trip. Each kid had to perform 40 hours of community service. In order to accomplish this, they used volunteers who had to go through an orientation, help three or four kids get their service in (which meant serving with them), and then make sure they had the appropriate gear for the trip. After months of working with these kids, it ended with a one-week trip on the river. I volunteered with River Rampage. My office staff worried that this trip would be viewed as a “free” river trip junket as opposed to me volunteering in a youth program. Fortunately, that accusation was never made, but it was a concern.
Without a doubt there are abuses that occur in elected officials’ travel. These abuses are harmful to the public because they create a sense that elected officials are in it for their own pleasure. But beyond that, these abuses also create fear within the elected ranks that might prevent officials from taking trips that are important and would serve the public.