Travelgate II: To Egypt on the Taxpayer’s Dime
Policy + Politics

Travelgate II: To Egypt on the Taxpayer’s Dime

REUTERS/Mary Calvert

Did three members of Congress not get the memo?

One of the benefits of the sequester this year is that it forced Congress to curtail government-paid overseas junkets. Watchdog groups and other critics have long derided many of these fact-finding missions as largely taxpayer-financed vacations for lawmakers, their families, and their staffs when Congress is not in session.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) even encouraged the curtailment or suspension of congressional delegations – or  CODELs – last February in response to the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts in domestic spending mandated by sequestration. He also forbade the use of military aircraft for travel, limiting the ability of House lawmakers to journey to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other war-torn regions.

But last weekend, a trio of provocative conservatives traveled to Cairo and made hash of U.S. policy with Egypt. The Tea Party-linked representatives hailed the military ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected president, and the bloody crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“We are here as members of Congress to say, ‘We are with you, and we encourage you,’” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), a one-time GOP presidential candidate, told the new military government during a news conference in Cairo.

Bachmann, well known for her fact-challenged presidential bid last year praised the new military government for battling terrorism. She also implied a link between the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept., 11, 2001, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose political party dominated elections after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and led to Morsi’s brief rise to power, according to The New York Times.

“We have seen the threat that the Muslim Brotherhood has posed around the world,” she said. “We stand against this great evil,” adding, “We remember who caused 9/11. We remember who it was that killed 3,000 brave Americans.”

Brotherhood leaders say their group has denounced the use of violence as a political tool in Egypt for half a century, and they condemned the Sept. 11 attacks – which were carried out by Al Qaeda.

Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA), appearing with Bachmann, compared the leader of the military takeover, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, to George Washington. The three vowed to defend the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt, so that its army could continue its fight against what Gohmert called “the bloodthirsty Muslim brothers.”

Left unsaid was that el-Sisi had ordered the government’s mass shootings of hundreds of mostly unarmed protests, its sweeping roundup of thousands of political opponents and its suspension of all legal protections against arbitrary arrests or other police abuse,  according to The New York Times. The Obama administration is withholding some military aid to Egypt as it reviews how to proceed with future foreign assistance.

The lawmakers appeared so ill-informed about the situation on the ground that Samer Shehata, a University of Oklahoma political scientist and expert on Egypt and the brotherhood, called the statements “utterly absurd.” He compared the news conference – broadcast via a pro-government satellite network – to a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

The details and purpose of the Bachmann-King-Gohmert trip to Cairo are sketchy, although a spokesman for Gohmert said Monday that “It was a CODEL – official business.” The three lawmakers also visited with NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), according to Kimberly Willingham, Gohmert’s communications director.

Gohmert has a gift for saying outrageous things on the floor of the House or on cable TV. Prior to the military’s toppling of Morsi, Gohmert fueled a conspiracy theory that the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood were teaming up to destroy Egypt with the help of U.S. military aid.

“Though some in D.C. felt it was a dangerous time to be in Egypt, I felt it was dangerous to make critical decisions without direct information,” he said in a statement about the CODEL.

King’s office said the trip was sponsored by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and King was authorized to go by the Judiciary Committee. The three lawmakers traveled on a commercial airline.

A spokesman for Boehner said today he was unaware of the details or cost of the trip. But he said the comments of the three Republicans did not reflect the views of the speaker or other members of the House GOP leadership.

During the second quarter of 2013, standing committees of Congress spent $1.2 million on official foreign travel. That figure was higher than normal because of Boehner’s requirement that members travel by commercial airlines and report the appropriate costs, according to Roll Call. When military air transport was used for trips in earlier quarters, no cost figure was disclosed.

The top three committees taking trips were the Foreign Affairs Committee ($396,629), the Armed Services Committee ($324,627), and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence ($222,645).

Brianna Ehley of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.