Reporter’s Notebook: With Congress out of session, lawmakers’ travel destinations speak volumes5 min read
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Oh, the places they went …
What lawmakers do when they’re out of session can provide clues as to what Congress may be up to when it is in session.
Look at where they go. That helps curate the narrative about what lawmakers want to talk about when Congress reconvenes.
Such is the case with the two-and-a-half-week April “recess” this year. Congress usually ditches Washington for an extended period in March or April – depending on when Easter and Passover fall.
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But first, some housekeeping.
Congress is like any other institution in America. There are workhorses. Members who toil around the clock on behalf of their constituents and the nation. And, like everyplace else, there are also slackers. Laggards. Clock-watchers. Those who hardly have the best interests of the country at heart.
As we say, in the United States, we enjoy “representative government.”
So when Congress goes on a “recess,” it’s not really a recess. Sure. Some members use this time to catch up with family or even take a vacation. They need a break like most others. But frankly, many lawmakers spend these lengthy “recesses” working. They’re back in their districts huddling with constituents, visiting machine shops, dairy farms, universities, attending church functions, talking with people at gas stations, walking picket lines.
The protracted stretch of time away from Washington isn’t really “time off.” And constituents would surely rail against lawmakers if they remained in Washington all the time. Criticism would mount that lawmakers had “gone native” and were now ensconced too deeply “inside the Beltway.”
So, during this recess, members are buzzing about their home states and districts. They’re also jetting around the world on what are known, in congressional shorthand as “CODELs.” It’s a Capitol Hill abbreviation for “Congressional delegation” – often led by top Senate and House leaders or committee chairs.
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This is where the “recess” part tells us a lot about what Congress will be up to when members reconvene.
For instance, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., led a CODEL to Denmark, Germany, Poland and the border with Ukraine. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., also led a group of lawmakers to Eastern Europe.
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Ukraine is front and center. Republicans upbraided the Biden administration for not taking more aggressive action against Ukraine – although Democrats have questioned what more the White House could have done. But the Ukraine crisis isn’t disappearing. Congress must probably approve another around of humanitarian and military assistance for Ukraine by late spring or early summer. That’s to say nothing of also freeing up money to relocate Ukrainian refugees in the U.S. or abroad.
Then word came that Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind. – a native of Ukraine – and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., traveled to Ukraine on their own. The State Department has discouraged members from freelancing and going to Ukraine proper on their own.
Some GOPers tried to blame not approving CODELs to Ukraine on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Granted, the speaker must sign off on any CODELs overseas – which of course must also be blessed by the State Department.
The State Department is unwilling to allow official travel to Ukraine out of concern for the safety of lawmakers. Fox is told that such a trip could put lawmakers at risk of injury or even capture. Moreover, there is concern that if there was an incident, diplomatic and military security officials may be put in harm’s way to protect the lawmakers or evacuate them.
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Fox has spoken with at least one lawmaker who wanted to go with Spartz and Daines. But the member didn’t believe the route they took was “secure.”
Another group of lawmakers hoped to travel to Ukraine. But Fox is told they contracted COVID while on another CODEL to Eastern Europe.
We’ve written in this space about the “Tuxedo” variant of COVID in Washington after the white-tie Gridiron Dinner. Now, with infected members returning from their overseas travels with one another, perhaps they have the “CODEL” variant.
Coronavirus isn’t going away. It will remain an issue around the globe. This is augmented by the spike in cases among lawmakers and officials in Washington.
See, I told you what members do overseas over recess tells you a great deal about what they’ll deal with when Congress returns to session. Watch to see what the COVID numbers are among lawmakers when Congress returns to session next week.
But back to the CODELs…
Some lawmakers wanted to head to Ukraine to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Others wanted to poke their finger in the eye of the State Department – which withdrew the diplomatic presence in Ukraine weeks ago.
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Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., noted that the U.S. never withdrew its diplomats from London during World War II and the Battle of Britain.
Pelosi was scheduled to lead a CODEL to Asia with a swing through Taiwan over the recess. But then the speaker tested positive for COVID. She was asymptomatic and tested negative several days later. But Pelosi’s positive test canceled the trip. Lawmakers are dialed-in to China and potential action it may take toward Taiwan in the coming months. Especially after Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s believed that Beijing is closely watching Moscow’s successes or failures in Ukraine and what approach it may eventually take with Taiwan.
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Another good indicator of what’s on the congressional docket: the surge of lawmakers who have visited the U.S.-Mexico border. Lots of lawmakers are headed to the border as the Biden administration suspends the pandemic policy to curb illegal immigration at the border known as Title 42.
Members from both sides know the border crisis will emerge as a key campaign issue this fall. That’s why vulnerable Sens. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., made trips to the border. McCarthy is also leading lawmakers to the border to challenge the administration’s decision to revoke Title 42.
We’ll probably learn about other overseas adventures by lawmakers in the coming days.
And then everyone will be back in Washington by the middle of next week.
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And what will lawmakers talk about?
Just look at the places they went.