2006-06-16 / Columnists

Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill

Why I Travel
By Congressman Gregory Meeks

GREGORY MeeKS Once or twice a year or so one of the tabloids does a story questioning my congressional travel.The writers list the same trips over and over. One writer, conveniently leaving out my trip to Israel, says I go to "exotic places."

I don't get what makes Latin American, Caribbean, African, Asian, or the Middle Eastern countries "exotic."To me, they areas of critical challenge for American policy.

With almost undisguised glee, the article enumerate the costs of some trips.They then point out that some of them were paid for by "private interests."

None of this tells the reader much. Any trip that any member of Congress takes is paid for by taxpayer dollar or by non-profit organization or institute or a foundation. Each and every trip I take as a member of Congress is approved by the House Ethics Committee.

Reference to "private interests" is really an inference that something shaky is going on.In other words, Congressman Meeks must be up to something.

My trips are about work, about policy, about U.S. relations with that country.You will find me in meetings or attending conferences or touring programs and projects, not on a golf course or tennis court.

What gets left out is whether or not congressional travel is important, and whether or not particular trips are helpful in making the kinds of decisions that members of Congress must make.For instance:Why do I consider travel essential?Does such travel help or hinder my ability to represent you?What bearing does travel have on my understanding not only of foreign policy but also trade, globalization, regional conflicts, foreign direct investment, development strategies, humanitarian assistance, the viability of United Nations programs and peacekeeping missions?

I am not only on the House Financial Services Committee but also the House International Relations Committee as well as its Africa and its Western Hemisphere subcommittees.I am chair of the Kenya Caucus, the Malaysia Caucus, and the Middle East Economic Partnership Caucus.I'm also a member of the West Africa Caucus and the India Caucus.

As one of 435 members of the House and one of 535 members of the Congress as a whole, I vote on the budgets for the State, Defense, and Commerce departments all of which have an extensive overseas presence.The International Relations Committee oversees foreign policy, including foreign aid programs and the international institutions to which our country belongs.I vote for or against trade agreements.I have to ascertain how issues like regional disputes, civil conflicts, poverty, underdevelopment, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic affect our national interests.I need to understand the effectiveness of our counter-terrorism and drug interdiction efforts.We are, after all, the most powerful country in the world.What we do and how we do it has a worldwide and certainly a regional impact.

The Sixth Congressional District is one of the most diverse congressional districts in the country. We are a congressional district of immigrants.These constituents want me to be familiar with their countries of origin and to help strengthen U.S. government and business contacts with the lands from which they came.

The trips I've taken - many of them in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus - to Nigeria, Israel, India, China, Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica, among other places, benefit the district and the country. Next winter, heating oil from Venezuela will be available to low income home owners in this district at cut-rate prices. The Caribbean is really our third border.My work with Caribbean Community nations has helped to strengthen our country's cooperation with CARICOM on issues ranging from peace and democracy in Haiti to trade to drug interdiction.

To be candid, travel is indispensable because I can't always have confidence in what Congress is told about foreign policy issues.It would also be irresponsible for me to rely solely on the State Department in my decision-making when I sit on the committee that has jurisdiction over the State Department.

I am not critical of colleagues who travel - provided it is approved by the House Ethics Committee. However, I am very critical of colleagues who don't travel and therefore have little or no first hand knowledge of the situation on the ground in country after country. It's astounding that a third of the members of Congress don't have passports. Some trips cost quite a bit of money - it's a long way to China, India, South Africa or the United Arab Emirates.But isn't it worth it to get to know leaders of nearly half of the world's population and to examine firsthand the implications of our policy?The cost of my travel pales in significance to the cost of inappropriate or inadequate decision-making by uninformed or misinformed members of Congress. I'm determined not to be one of them.

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