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Caught Our Eye

Posted by Garrett Snedeker on March 28, 2013

How did Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) earn the distinction of participating in the most expensive privately financed trip in Congress in recorded history? When the setting is the world's newest country and safe travel carries a significant premium, the costs just pile up.

Garamendi and his wife Patricia ventured to South Sudan and Tanzania in February, an excursion made possible by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Inc., more commonly known as CARE. The three-day, two-night "Learning Tour" for the couple came in at an eye-popping $40,083, with the bulk of the total, about $35K, attributed to transportation costs. The remaining amount was divided between lodging, meals and other expenses including interpreters, security, a medic and visas.

The trip, whose other participants included Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and a number of congressional staffers, focused on food security, nutrition and investments in agriculture and infrastructure by USAID. Meetings with government officials, diplomats, NGO representatives and local farmers occupied most of the agenda.

The means by which Garamendi traveled during the trip may suggest why the costs were so high. First, Garamendi and his wife were treated to business class travel to and from San Francisco. When they reached Africa, their travel costs did not mitigate. "Members of the delegation went to some pretty rural spots," notes CARE deputy director of Learning Tours Robert Roche, "to directly interact with people. In a country such as South Sudan that lacks infrastructure, travel included chartered planes and hired vehicles." For example, Roche stated that two Cessna planes were required to transport the delegation from place to place.

Even as Garamendi's travel costs helped establish a new record for privately financed travel, McCollum's and the rest of the congressional participants' expenses were much lower. Roche said that congressional staff flew economy class overseas, keeping their costs down, and that McCollum's return flight was purchased at the last minute to fly her through Turkey, which actually lowered her total costs to a fraction of Garamendi's.

Garamendi's press secretary Matthew Kravitz defended the trip, offering, "The Congressman's privately funded visit to South Sudan and Tanzania did not cost the U.S. taxpayer a single dime, but it did provide him with valuable information in his role as a Member of Congress and a member of the House Agriculture, Transportation, and Armed Services committees. Congressman Garamendi was able to see America's development programs, agricultural assistance, and peace building work first-hand in some of the poorest parts of the world."  

The previous congressional traveler who enjoyed top-billing for most expensive trip of all-time was Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) whose summer 2000 visit to London courtesy of Brown and Williamson Tobacco for him and his wife totaled $31,170. Unlike the Garamendis, the Blileys were treated to luxurious accommodations in London.