Congresswoman Susan Davis’s September 4, 2019, announcement that she will not seek reelection next year makes one wonder how she will adjust to paying her own travel bills. In an April 10 “News Under the Radar” column, the San Diego Reader’s Matt Potter called Davis, first elected to congress in 2000, “one of the most well-traveled members in House history.”
In one of his earliest call-outs on May 10, 2007, Potter cited four trips Davis and her husband Steve took in less than a year on the Aspen Institute’s dime: first to Punta Mita near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, to the tune of $5210 for a conference on U.S. policy in Latin America; then to Kraków, Poland, to study U.S.-Russia-Europe relations ($4630); San Juan, Puerto Rico to discuss President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy ($7036); and finally to three cities in China for study of U.S. China relations at a cost of $14,515.
The Aspen Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank, has been the primary funder of Davis’s globetrotting. The Institute advertises itself as “a non-partisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas.” It sponsors conferences, “events,” seminars and “small gatherings where experts and leaders reflect, connect, and share ideas.”
But Aspen has not been Davis’s only ennabler. Potter reported on March 16, 2015, that the American Israel Education Foundation came up with $17,908 to pay for Davis and her husband to visit Israel for 10 days the previous August. The foundation “is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.... Then it was off to Turkey,where the couple spent a week courtesy of the Aspen Institute [again], which picked up the $13,533 tab.”
In February 2015, they traveled to Japan for a seven-day “U.S. Congressional Member Study Tour.” The price tag? $23,487.
Of the many columns Potter has devoted to reporting on Davis’s travels, one in particular stands out for having drawn a letter to the editor rejecting the use of the word “junket” to name a recent trip.
The April 10, 2019, column reported on the February 2019 trip Davis took to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to participate in conferences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The left-leaning J Street Education Fund, which promotes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and favoring a two-state solution, footed the bill for Davis and her husband to the tune of $23,223, which included $9965 times 2 for travel “and other transportation items” and food bills at several “upscale” restaurants in Jerusalem. “The purpose of the weeklong junket beginning February 15,” wrote Potter, “was to give Davis ‘a deeper perspective into the complexities related to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. foreign aid, and other issues in the Middle East,’ according to a March 11 disclosure filing.”
On April 17, the Reader published a letter to the editor by Janice Steinberg of Banker’s Hill. “Hardly a ‘junket,’ as Matt Potter described it,” wrote Steinberg of Davis’s travel to Israel, “this was an intensive, highly nuanced working trip in which a typical day ran twelve to fourteen hours. The itinerary included meetings with key figures in the Israeli and Palestinian governments, as well as leaders working to promote cooperation in business, civic, and educational realms. The U.S. has historically been a broker for peace and an advocate for a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians. I deeply appreciate that Rep. Davis took the time to become better informed about this volatile region of the world.”
Merriam-Webster Online defines “junket” as “a trip made by an official at public expense.” Other dictionaries add that the trip is unnecessary. This may be why Steinberg’s reasoning emphasized the work done during the trip. But she might have complained as well that no public expense was involved. J Street is a private non-profit organization.
Perusal of current journalistic references to congressional junkets shows it to be more inclusive, however, allowing for the funding of the trips by non-profits. What has been forbidden in recent years is such funding by commercial lobbyists. But loopholes seem always to be discovered in the regulations, and lobbyists have learned to make charitable contributions to non-profits with stipulations as to how the money can be spent.
“Seizing on the loopholes, lobbyists and the companies that employ them are still underwriting trips by dozens of members of Congress, particularly those in the House,” a New York Times review shows. “The companies finance much of this travel indirectly, getting around the spirit of the rules by giving money to nonprofits, some of which seem to exist largely to sponsor trips. In fact, the rules may have had the unexpected effect of obscuring who is actually paying for a lawmaker’s junket.”
“If a nonprofit group is essentially just being used as a pass-through entity for corporate players that otherwise could not sponsor an event, that is a fraud and that is not allowed,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who leads the House ethics committee.”
“Members of Congress used to enjoy support from legislative service organizations, taxpayer-funded offices that provided policy analyses on many topics to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle,’ writes James Curry, professor of political science at the University of Utah. But in the mid-1990s, they were dissolved to save money, a decision Curry describes as “penny wise and pound foolish.”
Since then policy expertise has been centered in the offices of party leaders, leaving individual members to fend for themselves in search of policy ideas that make sense to them personally. Meanwhile, party leaders have been using their control of expertise to keep their members on a straight and narrow path. The effect has been to make Congress ever more partisan, according to Curry.
“When they disseminate information,” he says, “leaders take various steps to frame the way rank-and-file legislators view and understand emerging issues, and of course they present analyses of legislation in ways that encourage ordinary House and Senate members to side with the choices favored by their own party’s leadership.”
So the junkets provide avenues for congressional members and their staffs to discover less biased political solutions that might challenge their leadership’s intransigence, right?
Not so fast. First of all, the disclosures junketeers are required to submit about their trips display extravagances that ordinary citizens would not be likely to purchase. They are luxuries fit for persons of high rank and influence. It comes down once again to the dirty role of money in politics. The providing organizations have an agenda to push in the halls of Congress, and they know on whom to lavish the luxury.
In a June 30, 2010 column about a junket Davis and spouse took to Tunis, Tunisia, Potter wrote: “Under new House rules, the nonprofits were required to produce a letter saying they were aware of the topic of the event but weren’t lobbying for anything, hadn’t received any congressional earmarks, and left the choice of which House members would get the freebies to Aspen. But skeptics note that private foundations aren’t required by federal law to disclose to the public the names of their contributors, a big loophole that could allow stealthy donors such as lobbyists and corporations to launder the trip money to their congressional friends by contributing it to tax-free to the non-profits.”
On September 15, 2014, Potter wrote of another Aspen-funded Davis jaunt: “In February of last year, the traveling pair went on a $17,096 trip to India, courtesy of the nonprofit, which has derived its funding from corporate contributors including Microsoft, PepsiCo, Levi Strauss, Duke Energy, and Credit Suisse.”
On September 11, 2019, Potter reported on Davis’s most recent junket, a trip to Africa. “The excursion to Rwanda included a stop at the five-star Kigali Serena Hotel, which ‘is a great place to start or end a gorilla safari,’ says TheLuxuryTravelExpert.com.”
Perhaps the 75-year-old Davis’s wandering feet are finally tired. In the retirement announcement to her constituents, she wrote, “My decision today represents a desire to live and work ‘at home’ in San Diego.”