WASHINGTON — At a time when congressional travel is coming under new scrutiny, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) has the distinction of taking more trips at taxpayer expense than anyone else in the California delegation.
In the last 3 1/2 years, she visited the South Pole, snorkeled at Australia's Great Barrier Reef and joined world leaders at a security conference in Munich, Germany. She met with Darfur refugees in Sudan, attended a "legislators' dialogue" with European Parliament members in Slovenia, delivered a speech on transportation security in France and inspected anti-terrorism defenses in Genoa, Italy, and Mombasa, Kenya.
All told, she has made 20 overseas trips since the start of 2006, touching down on every continent. Last year, she went abroad seven times. Many times she used military flights, but one commercial flight from Australia to Britain cost $8,383.
Sanchez, a congresswoman since 1997, said the travel was important to her work as the ranking female lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee and as vice chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee.
"I am a much more effective legislator when I am better educated on the issues," she said.
Congressional travel is in the spotlight again because of increased spending for government-sponsored trips. Critics, though acknowledging that some trips serve valid public purposes, contend that the system needs clearer, more complete reporting of the details.
"There simply has to be more transparency and more scrutiny of these trips," said Rep. Timothy V. Johnson (R-Ill.), who is cosponsoring legislation to require the Pentagon to disclose the cost of flying lawmakers on military aircraft. Currently, lawmakers report only the expense of commercial flights and per diems for meals and lodging.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said: "If these fact-finding missions are so important, and I'm not saying they aren't, lawmakers should be fine with sharing all the facts of their trip."
The scrutiny of taxpayer-funded trips comes after lawmakers cracked down on privately funded travel in response to scandals such as lobbyist-arranged golf outings to Scotland. The attention also comes as lawmakers return to Washington after taxpayer-funded excursions during their summer recess. One group took a 10-day trip to American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and Palau; another group spent 13 days visiting Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China and Canada.
Iraq and Afghanistan have become frequent destinations for lawmakers. But they also have traveled to more hospitable places including the Galapagos Islands and the Paris Air Show.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has taken two taxpayer-funded trips abroad, both in 2007. She led a group of senators to Greenland and later traveled to Iceland, Britain and France -- in both cases to view the effects of global warming and explore how other countries were responding to climate change. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last took a taxpayer-funded trip abroad in 2004, to Iraq.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has taken 10 trips overseas at taxpayer expense, including two trips each to Afghanistan and Iraq, since she assumed the House leadership post in 2007. She took one other trip in 2006.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, hasn't taken a taxpayer-funded overseas trip since he visited refugees of the Kosovo war in the Balkans a decade ago.
"Usually, I can learn more if I devote the same number of hours studying, discussing issues with foreign policy experts, and meeting with foreign leaders when they come to Washington," he said.
But many see travel as invaluable.
Commenting on Sanchez's travel, Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, said: "All three of her subcommittee assignments covering the armed services -- personnel, investigations and strategic forces -- would arguably benefit from foreign travel, and she chairs the homeland security subcommittee responsible for maritime and global terrorism.
"It's hard to see how Sanchez could discharge her responsibilities effectively without visiting foreign bases and allies frequently," he added.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he could not understand "how we're supposed to do our job . . . without being familiar with what is actually going on rather than what some bureaucrat tells us is going on." Berman, who took over the committee gavel in March 2008, has taken 13 tax-funded trips abroad since the start of 2006.
He said lawmakers should take as many trips as they think are helpful, so long as they don't miss House votes and are prepared to justify trips to their constituents.
Sanchez's chief of staff, Adrienne K. Elrod, said the congresswoman went snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef with scientists to see the effects of global warming. It was part of a climate-change trip with other lawmakers that drew attention after the Wall Street Journal detailed, in addition to snorkeling, a cable car ride through the Australian rain forest, a tour of a penguin breeding ground and the visit to the South Pole.
Sanchez said the trip convinced her "that the security threat posed by global warming is real, massive and fast approaching."