Clark, a one-term Democratic senator from Iowa during the 1970s, says many spouses sit in on all the meetings and points to tangible results emerging from his conferences, such as No Child Left Behind education reforms and the landmark Nunn-Lugar program to rid the former Soviet Union of "loose nukes." As for the swank accommodations, he admits, "It's true, I don't take people to Holiday Inns." At Common Cause, a watchdog group, spokesman Michael Surrusco said while Aspen conferences are regarded as substantive, "a reasonable person is right to wonder if it is really necessary that a member and his wife get a $20,000 week in Rome in order to deal with this particular topic. Is it appropriate, is it necessary, is it directly germane to the work they are doing?"
House Democrat Rush Holt of New Jersey, who went to Rome, defends the program and says the conferences are so good that he's learned more from them than from official travel to Islamic countries. "Our day-to-day life in Congress is broken into 15-minute segments, 12 hours a day, so the program is among the best opportunities we have to delve into subjects," he says. "They are one of few opportunities we have for deliberative, substantive, bipartisan looks at important subjects."
Voinovich, the Ohio senator, echoes Holt in calling Aspen conferences "extremely helpful." Not only did he take his wife to Rome, but the two also enjoyed a tropical destination this spring. The couple joined seven other lawmakers March 24, the day after Easter, for a five-day conference courtesy of Aspen on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. The setting was a sumptuous Four Seasons resort, the Lodge at Koele, and the sessions explored U.S.-China relations. All but one of the eight lawmakers took their spouses to the Aloha State.
A new trend among average people is a "staycation," or sticking close to home. In June, for example, the percentage of Americans who planned a vacation within six months fell to 36 percent, the lowest since the question first was asked in 1978, says the Conference Board, a not-for-profit research organization. No one would call the Aspen conferences "vacations," though the settings certainly fit the bill. Give or take, Clark expects 15 members of Congress in Paris once August rolls around, though, for now, he's mum on just who's coming.
-With Jennifer O'Shea
Updated on 7/25/08