San Diego Union Tribune

July 18, 2005

Letter from Washington

By Dana Wilkie

In recent years, which member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee seized the most opportunities to visit far-flung locales at taxpayer expense?

One might presume it to be a top-ranking member – perhaps chairman Joe Barton of Texas, or vice chairman Michael Bilirakis of Florida.

It's not, but here's a hint: It's a Republican who's been in office only four years but doesn't act like it.

Yes, that would be Darrell Issa.

In the past two years, the multimillionaire car-alarm company founder was the best-traveled member of this committee that oversees the promotion of commerce and the public's marketplace interests. According to House records, the Vista Republican spent far more taxpayer money on foreign trips than the committee's chairman, its two vice chairmen, or any of the panel's more than 50 other lawmakers.

Issa, who took a leave of absence from the committee this year, visited at least 17 foreign destinations in 2003 and 2004 – Jordan, Kuwait, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Austria, Ukraine, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Qatar and Tunisia.

Taxpayer cost: $44,907.

Coming in a pale second was Clifford Stearns, a Florida Republican on the committee a dozen years, who spent $17,046 in foreign travel the same two years. Barton, the committee chairman who has been in Congress more than two decades, spent only $8,992. Bilirakis, a 12-term congressman, spent a relatively meager $5,526.

There were other relatively big spenders, though none in Issa's class: Democrat Rick Boucher of Virginia spent $11,289; Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield spent $11,722; and Michigan Republican Mike Rogers spent $10,052.

As with all House committees, foreign travel for Energy and Commerce members must first be approved by House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Readers may recall that Issa is also the top travel junketeer among San Diego's congressional delegation, taking $45,635 worth of trips funded by private groups in the past five years to conduct research, give speeches, accept awards and attend conferences and retreats. Issa's wife, Katharine, accompanied him on several of these trips.

Among the more expensive was a nearly $11,000 trip in October 2001 sponsored by the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, which promotes cooperation between Arabs and Jews. Issa traveled to the Middle East, with a stop in Paris to encourage Arab nations to block financial support to terrorists.

In recent years, the Bush White House has come to rely on this Arab-American lawmaker as something of a envoy to the Middle East. Issa – a third-generation American whose grandfather came from a Lebanese town south of Tripoli – has visited the region numerous times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, often to solicit support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Middle Eastern relations, however, are not really the purview of the Energy and Commerce committee, which oversees telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, public health, air quality, environmental health, the supply and delivery of energy, and interstate and foreign commerce.

Issa, whose 49th Congressional District reaches north from Vista to southern Riverside and east to the Cleveland National Forest and Warner Springs, first joined the committee in 2003.

Why such prolific traveling for such a relative rookie?

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill noted that many of the trips involved attending economic forums or meeting with foreign ministers and leaders.

This past January, Issa announced he was taking a leave of absence from the Energy committee to resume work on the International Relations and Judiciary committees, where he is focusing on immigration reform and foreign policy.

If history is any guide, we can expect that Issa will continue to discover that being a congressman can be quite a . . . cosmopolitan experience.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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