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Two Cheers for Codels

Congressional delegations to foreign countries—”codels” as the poor State Department officers tasked with escorting the solons and their posses around various foreign sites call them—are the bane of a diplomat’s life, and newspapers love to trash them as wasteful boondoggles taken on the public dime. Take this snarky Washington Post “In The Loop” piece on upcoming delegations to China, Korea, Taiwan, and India:

The House is off next week, and that means, even in an election year, members will be required to travel in search of elusive facts.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is leading a group taking off Friday for a week in Taiwan and South Korea, looking at three days in Seoul and three in Taipei. . . .

This is not a particularly Loop-recommended trip. Ros-Lehtinen runs a pretty tight ship. And while spouses are going along—as well as some staff—there will be endless meetings.

A much better bet is a 10-day jaunt, also leaving Friday, led by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), to China, South Korea and India.

This is a “bipartisan, fact-finding mission,” a committee spokesman e-mailed, “to learn global solutions that could increase America’s competitiveness in the classroom and the workplace.”

This sounds very good. The Taj, the Great Wall. . . .

“Members will also seek a greater understanding of the region as it relates to trade policy and our broader national security,” the e-mail said, “through roundtables and meetings with cabinet-level officials” plus “visits to schools, universities, and business centers.” Excellent. No square tables.

It’s true that these sorts of trips can sometimes double as vacation tours for congressmen and women and their families. But think about it: Don’t we want congressmen to know something about the issues they vote on? Don’t we want them to understand critical foreign policy concerns? Via Meadia on the whole thinks that we do. But do we want lobbyists or foreign governments paying for or arranging their travel? We think not.

This leaves congressional junkets as the only way to go. Via Meadia would actually like to see more of them, with more members of Congress and government participating. Yes, they cost money and yes, like every government perk, they can be misused. When we hear about Polynesian codels to “investigate” snorkeling conditions in the South Pacific, we will sound the alarm. But America’s future is increasingly tied to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. If senators and members of congress are ready to go over there, get briefed by U.S. diplomats (who generally give very good and clear briefings, by the way), meet foreign officials and politicians, and perhaps most important of all get out of the official bubble and nose around foreign cities on their own for a bit, getting a sense of how people live and how things work overseas, then Via Meadia wishes them a bon voyage.

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  • Jim.

    “Del”s probably aren’t the best way to do this.

    I remember a news story a few months back, picturing an American official (An ambassador? A trade rep?) in a baseball cap and a backpack, buying coffee at a Starbuck’s in a Chinese airport.

    I’d bet he was getting a more effective learning experience about how things tick than the dog-and-pony shows many of these junkets turn into. No disrespect to our competent diplomats, an afternoon or two of presentations from them would also be invaluable — but the less these CoDels look like a King’s Progress, the better, in my opinion.

  • Kansas Scott

    I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we seem to have this Puritan mentality that if something has some amount of fun in it, then it is wrong.

    The world is far too important to everything we do in this country for our members of Congress to have never visited it. Education comes in many different forms and travel is by far one of the best bangs for the buck.

  • Bob from Ohio

    Bah. These trips are 100% worthless.

    If they want to go overseas, buy a plane ticket like anyone else.

    We also have too many diplomats abroad. Its not the 18th century anymore. Modern communicatins have made diplmats largely obsolete.

    Time to consolidate embassies in many countries. One embassy can serve most of Africa, for instance, just small consulates need be left in most countries there. Same for Central America.

    All of our embassies are too large as well.

  • Jbird

    Jim: That was our ambassador to China.

  • Kris

    “get out of the official bubble and nose around foreign cities on their own for a bit, getting a sense of how people live and how things work overseas”

    Now to get them to do so in domestic cities as well.

  • Kris

    Me being silly.

  • Brandon

    Even speaking as a Tea Party conservative, I completely agree Professor Mead.

    In my seven years as a Congressional staffer I never joined a CODEL, but I did see the benefit they brought about for the members who participated.

    @Kris Domestic trips are also called CODELs and are common. Also, members will often attend committee field hearings and other fact finding domestic trips that don’t carry the CODEL moniker (which is only a term for those trips approved by the Speaker of the House and often the Minority Leader). These trips are also vital to shaping legislation.

  • Penfeld

    I can’t speak for CODELs, but from what I’ve seen in Asia, they’re pretty much a waste. I was in Taipei when one came through and met the staffers. The congresspersons and staffers alike rarely, if at all, interact with the local population, opposition parties, university professors, a wide range of business professionals, etc. Most of the time is spent in meetings with government officials peddling propaganda. I tend to think these trips often leave us worse off as members of Congress come back thinking they know a country and its politics simply because they spent a couple days on a carefully choreographer tour.

  • Kris

    Brandon@7: First, thanks for your informative comment. Second, I’m with you and our host in not condemning CODELs outright. Third, my actual point was that it would be valuable for some Congressmen, especially the more veteran ones, to augment their foreign and domestic CODELs with more experience of ordinary American life.

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