Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Mike Ross, freeloader

The timing could not be more embarrassing for U. S. Rep. Mike Ross or more delicious for the taxpayers in his district. A week after the South Arkansas congressmanís celebrated face-down with his party leaders over the cost of health-care reform, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ross was one of 10 members of the House of Representatives who took a globe-hopping junket across much of the Southern Hemisphere in January 2008 at a cost of more than $600,000 to the Treasury.

Ross is a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, conservative Democrats whose mantra is fiscal restraint, and they were worried about the higher federal spending in the health-reform plan, which would mandate that everyone acquire health insurance.

Ross jawboned the committee down by $10 billion a year or so, mainly by shaving the little subsidy that would be offered to poor working families if they would subscribe to health insurance. For a few days he was a national hero.

The Journalís junket expose tells a different story about the spending watchdogs. Of the 10 members of Congress on the junket (six, including Ross, took their spouses), four were members of the Blue Dogs and four were Republicans who built reputations as foes of federal spending. The Journal wasnít trying to embarrass them on health reform but on global-warming legislation. They are members of the science committee and the trip was supposed to be a fact-finding mission about the effect of global warming on Antarctica.

Along the way, they snorkled on the Great Barrier Reefs, where they got to see the coral bleaching from rising levels of atmospheric carbon, rode a cable car through the Australian rain forest, visited a penguin rookery in New Zealand and stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach. The spouses stayed behind in New Zealand while the lawmakers flew to the South Pole to see the melting icecaps. They were educated and suitably impressed. Still, all but three voted against the cap-and-trade bill that is supposed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slow the threat of devastating climate change.

Ross has taken some pricey junkets in his five terms, but he and his conservative friends are not the only hypocrites. Foreign travel and other forms of government-paid skylarking are endemic. We remember Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, every Arkansanís favorite conservative, taking a junket every year to a world parliamentary conference. It was always held in one of the great pleasurable cities of Europe ó Paris, Rome, Vienna, Istanbul. No African fact-finding missions for him.

Former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, maybe the most expensive senator in history for the taxpayers, led a small expedition of senators in 2007 to see the Paris Air Show to educate themselves on aviation technology. Taxpayers picked up the tab: $121,000.

Altogether, congressional junkets cost about $13 million a year, some would say not much in a budget of more than $3 trillion.

The Pentagon throws more than that into the winds by 9 oíclock in the morning every day. But it would be hard to find an expenditure more manifestly wasteful or one that arouses more distrust of Congress. You would think that they would pay more attention to their low estimation as an institution.

Ending junkets wouldnít make a dent in the deficit, but it would raise the Congress a little in the public estimation. The House last week backed down on a $550 million appropriation for eight more Defense Department aircraft to ferry senior government officials, including members of Congress, around the world. Thatís progress.