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Capuano trips raise profile, questions

Records reveal a $24,000 taxpayer tab for overseas travel

Representative Michael Capuano defended his trips, saying foreign policy knowledge is important and that knowledge is enhanced by meeting with foreign dignitaries. Representative Michael Capuano defended his trips, saying foreign policy knowledge is important and that knowledge is enhanced by meeting with foreign dignitaries. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / October 10, 2009

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US Representative Michael Capuano has traveled the world over his past five years in Congress, visiting two dozen countries and racking up at least $24,000 worth of taxpayer-funded bills for hotels, meals, and entertainment, as well as thousands more for travel on government jets, congressional records show.

Capuano’s trips are far from unusual for members of the House and Senate, for whom taxpayer-funded overseas travel is increasingly popular. And members of Congress who sit on committees overseeing foreign policy have run up far bigger tabs.

But Capuano - who went to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe - has a decidedly domestic portfolio in the House. He went on more than half the trips as a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; the others he took as part of official House delegations. His other committee assignment is the House Financial Services Committee.

Capuano is one of four major Democrats seeking the Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Steve Ellis - vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington - called Capuano’s travel “impressive.’’ Ellis, a frequent critic of such trips, said they raise questions about whether the travel is “less about fact-finding and more about shopping.’’

“Often these trips are less about America’s role in the world and more about getting a nice perk on the taxpayers’ dime,’’ he said.

Capuano said in a statement that his travels have given him a better understanding of foreign policy. He cited George W. Bush’s limited international travel before becoming president.

“If we learned anything from the [Bush] presidency, it is that political leaders must have foreign policy knowledge,’’ he said. “That knowledge is enhanced by meeting with foreign dignitaries and the people of other nations.’’

He added: “I’ve met with military leaders in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, traveled as a cochair of the Sudan Caucus to witness firsthand the devastation there, and as a member of the Transportation Committee spent time in other countries learning more about security and transportation matters. All of these experiences have expanded my world view and provided hands-on foreign policy experience.’’

Ellis said that because Congress makes it challenging for the public to review the records of such trips, it is difficult to evaluate contentions by Capuano and other lawmakers that the visits are packed with work-related tasks.

Other members of the Massachusetts delegation have taken numerous trips overseas, as well, though exact comparisons are difficult.

US Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, has traveled frequently, but almost exclusively to the Middle East. He has visited Iraq at least 10 times since 2005 in his role as chairman of a congressional subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs.

US Representative Edward Markey, the dean of the delegation, has taken eight congressional trips abroad since 2005, some in his capacity as chairman of a select committee on global warming. He twice joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in delegation trips, one to Italy and Afghanistan in February and another in May to China, where, over six days, he racked up per-diem costs of $2,557, records show.

“Chairman Markey has traveled to many of these locations to observe the effects of climate change firsthand, meet with foreign heads of state, heads of government, or senior energy and environmental ministers to discuss climate change, energy policy, and the ongoing negotiations on a new treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,’’ said his press secretary, Daniel Reilly.

Capuano’s interest in overseas travel was evident early in his Washington career. He indicated after his first reelection that he intended to travel often during his congressional career. “I gotta get one reelection, and then I can go wherever I want to,’’ Capuano told a writer for The New Republic in 2001.

His journeys have taken him from Morocco and South Africa to Singapore and Cairo. The six-term Somerville Democrat, who has made America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan an issue in his US Senate campaign, has made one visit to Iraq, and two to Afghanistan.

On his trips, Capuano was often accompanied by colleagues and, at times, by his wife, Barbara, who travels for free but must pay her own way for meals, hotels, and other per-diem costs. He and his colleagues are escorted around the countries they visit, entertained by national leaders, briefed by US ambassadors and top military commanders, and put up at swank hotels.

Not all of Capuano’s destinations have been popular tourist spots. He traveled to sub-Saharan Africa in February 2006, a trip that began in Darfur, the war-torn region of Sudan. He also visited an AIDS clinic in South Africa.

But a review of his travels shows that Capuano frequently visited less gritty locales, where flak jackets were not needed.

His three-day visit to Singapore in August 2008 cost taxpayers $2,750 for food, hotels, and entertainment. It was part of a $5,674 seven-day trip that began in Greece and also included Vietnam and Taiwan. The trip, for 14 members of Congress, cost $79,436 in all, according to records. Those expenses do not include the cost of the government air transportation, which is not listed in the Congressional Record.

According to aides, Capuano regularly conducts work on the trips. On his visit to Singapore, they say, he and his colleagues met with the country’s transportation minister, the foreign minister, toured an aircraft maintenance plant, and visited the country’s major port, all the while “reviewing issues surrounding transportation and security.’’

Two of Capuano’s eight trips were codels, short for congressional delegations, which are made up of specially selected House members, a perk given out by Pelosi and her leadership team. Capuano has been active in Pelosi’s inner circle, heading up her transition to power after the Democrats gained control of the House in 2006. She also put him in charge of an ethics reform task force that tightened up many of House rules.

Capuano traveled with Pelosi and Markey to Italy and Afghanistan last February, where the small delegation met with President Hamid Karzai and US military and diplomatic leaders. But the group spent only a day or two in Afghanistan and more than a week in Italy. Capuano’s expenses in Italy cost taxpayers $3,517. The group, while there, met with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and visited American and NATO military bases.

Codels have increased sharply since 2005, when an influence-peddling scandal prompted Congress to adopt a ban on travel funded by special interests and lobbyists.

Capuano was caught up in that controversy after a 2005 trip that he and his wife took to Brazil. Their $19,402 in travel expenses were picked up by the Congressional Economic Leadership Institute, which is funded by an array of corporate sponsors. Others on the trip included representatives of American Airlines, Boeing Co., and DaimlerChrysler. He listed the reason for the trip as “educational.’’

A Wall Street Journal analysis of travel records this year showed that since 2001, government spending on overseas congressional trips has tripled. In 2008 alone, members of Congress spent $13 million in foreign travel, a 50 percent jump since Democrats took control of the House in 2006, the analysis concluded.