Lawmakers’ Global-Warming Trip Hit Tourist Hot Spots
Penguins, a Rocket-Propelled Airplane (and Tax Dollars) Also Involved
WASHINGTON — When 10 members of Congress wanted to study climate change, they did more than just dip their toes into the subject: They went diving and snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. They also rode a cable car through the Australian rain forest, visited a penguin rookery and flew to the South Pole.
The 11-day trip — with six spouses traveling along as well — took place over New Year’s 2008. Details are only now coming to light as part of a Wall Street Journal analysis piecing together the specifics of the excursion.
It’s tough to calculate the travel bills racked up by members of Congress, but one thing’s for sure: They use a lot of airplanes. In recent days, House of Representatives members allocated $550 million to upgrade the fleet of luxury Air Force jets used for trips like these — even though the Defense Department says it doesn’t need all the planes.
The South Pole trip, led by Rep. Brian Baird (D., Wash.), ranks among the priciest. The lawmakers reported a cost to taxpayers of $103,000.
That figure, however, doesn’t include the actual flying, because the trip used the Air Force planes, not commercial carriers. Flight costs would lift the total tab to more than $500,000, based on Defense Department figures for aircraft per-hour operating costs.
Lawmakers say the trip offered them a valuable chance to learn about global warming and to monitor how federal funds are spent. “The trip we made was more valuable than 100 hearings,” said Rep. Baird, its leader. “Are there members of Congress who take trips somewhat recreationally? Perhaps. Is this what this trip was about? Absolutely not.”
The knowledge gained is “profoundly important to how I do this job,” added Mr. Baird, who at the time headed the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on research and science education.
Other legislators agree it wasn’t all fun and games. “There are a lot more glamorous things to do than hang out on the South Pole,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican who traveled as well. “I never want to wear that many clothes again.”
Taxpayer-funded travel for Congress is booming. Legislators and aides reported spending about $13 million on overseas trips last year, a Journal analysis has shown, a nearly 10-fold jump since 1995.
For Mr. Baird, the trip was one of two such excursions in six months. Last summer, he went to the Galapagos Islands with several lawmakers, also to gain expertise in climate change.
Other lawmakers have taken big-ticket trips. In June 2007, Ted Stevens, then a Republican senator from Alaska, and four other senators went to the Paris Air Show, costing the government $121,000 for hotels, meals and other expenses. Information needed to estimate their flight costs wasn’t available.
Mr. Stevens said the purpose was to learn more about developments in aviation. “My state is very dependent on the industry” because many cities can be reached only by air, he said.
The 10 members of Congress gathered at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on the morning of Dec. 29, 2007, along with several of their staff. Those who brought spouses were four Democrats (Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri, Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee) and two Republicans (Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas and Mr. Lucas of Oklahoma). Spouses must pay for their own meals, but they don’t have to pay for lodging and travel.
Asked about his wife’s participation, Mr. Lucas cited a busy congressional schedule that often keeps families separated, even on weekends. If spouses couldn’t go along on trips abroad, “then you couldn’t travel — simple as that,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Melancon said the representative’s wife of 37 years, Peachy Melancon, added “insight and perspective” that “only amplified the educational benefit he gained as a lawmaker.”
Representatives for the other four who brought spouses declined to comment on doing so. Lawmakers said the trip offered them a valuable chance to learn about global warming and to monitor how federal funds are spent on scientific projects.
The party boarded a C-40, the military’s business-class version of a Boeing 737. It is designed to be an “office in the sky” for government leaders, according to the Air Force Web site.
The lawmakers touched down at their first destination, Christchurch, New Zealand, a few hours before sunset on New Year’s Eve. Mr. Baird watched the town’s fireworks at midnight, his spokesman said.
The next day, Jan. 1, 2008, preparing for their South Pole trip, the lawmakers were provided clothing for extreme cold weather, including thermal underwear, according to the National Science Foundation.
Only lawmakers and staff were allowed to visit Antarctica; spouses stayed in New Zealand. The government doesn’t pay for spouses’ accommodations when the lawmakers aren’t present.
On Jan. 2, the lawmakers and four aides flew to McMurdo Station in Antarctica on a supply flight, about 800 miles from the South Pole. “Take your camera to dinner,” the itinerary reminded the travelers, for a post-meal tour of Discovery Hut, an outpost that was the launching pad for early South Pole expeditions.
The next day, the group left for the South Pole itself aboard a C-130 Hercules making a previously scheduled supply run. The aircraft was specially equipped with takeoff-boosting rockets and also skis for use on ice runways. The lawmakers toured the South Pole Station, including its post office. “Pre-address and pre-stamp any mail you wish to send from the South Pole,” the itinerary reminded them. Scientists briefed them on research projects including a $271 million telescope buried in the ice that detects elementary particles passing through the Earth.
After flying back to McMurdo, they visited a penguin rookery to see the “threats to the wildlife,” said a spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation.
They also spoke with National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists there who hope to use the South Pole’s frigid and hostile environment to test inflatable moon dwellings. “Some of the most important science in the world is being done down there,” Mr. Baird said.
Next stop: Australia. The group took a boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef, where lawmakers spoke with scientists about research showing its vulnerability to climate change, according to the Science Committee’s report.
Mr. Baird, a certified scuba diver, said he went on two shallow reef dives with scientists. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, said she preferred to snorkel. Mr. Lucas said he didn’t enjoy the boat trip because he hasn’t spent much time on the water. The reef is one of the world’s premier diving destinations.
Pacific Ocean near his district.
The tab for two days in Australia was more than $50,000, according to the travel-disclosure form. According to the document, the lawmakers spent $32,000 on hotels and meals, $7,000 on transportation and $10,000 for “other purposes.” As on all such oversees trips, each lawmaker gets a daily stipend of $350 for incidentals, according to the form.
Mr. Baird said the travel report for Australia was inaccurate. His spokesman didn’t respond to requests for details.
The trip ended with a layover in Hawaii to refuel the Air Force plane. There, lawmakers visited troops based at Hickman Air Force Base.
On the last night of their 11-day trip, the lawmakers stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. The spokesman for Mr. Baird said he would have been “every bit as happy camping as staying in a hotel.”
— Brody Mullins and T.W. Farnam
The Wall Street Journal, AUGUST 8, 2009