One Is the Loneliest Number

The House majority leader announced a 'bipartisan' congressional delegation – with only one Democrat.

House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) delivers remarks about his support of charter schools and tax-funded voucher programs that help pay for private and parochial schools at the Brookings Institution January 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Bipartisan, you say?

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There’s a bipartisan congressional delegation headed to Asia on a fact-finding trip, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office informs the press. And that would be great, except for one thing: there’s only one Democrat, a freshman from Hawaii, Cantor’s office lists as going along.

Congressional delegations (or CODELs, as they are called) get unfairly criticized as junkets, some kind of free overseas vacation for lawmakers during congressional recesses. That is not only a cheap shot, but simply untrue. As any member who has been on these trips can attest, it’s a lot of travel, a lot of scurrying around to meet various leaders, and it is just physically exhausting. It’s the same as telling a reporter covering a presidential campaign that he or she is getting paid to see the country – most likely, you get to see, in the dark, the landscape from a campaign bus as you head to your hotel at 2 a.m., only to be forced to have your bags downstairs for baggage call at 6 a.m.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The CODELs are not quite as frantic as a presidential campaign, but they are packed with meetings and they are important. There are things that simply cannot be understood by making calls from Washington or meeting with foreign government representatives here. There’s a layer of understanding that can only come from seeing things on the ground. Unfortunately, there’s a segment of the public (and Congress) who believe that it’s a waste of time and money to have these trips. That makes some members skittish about going, worried their next election opponents will cast them as globetrotting freeloaders.

But one of the biggest benefits of the CODELs is the relationship-building among lawmakers, and that is why it’s so troubling that Cantor’s office lists just a single Democrat. There’s something about going on a trip together – particularly an overseas trip, which has the effect of uniting the travelers as fellow Americans instead of underscoring their difference as Democrats and Republicans. Washington is suffering mightily now because of a failure by lawmakers to compromise – and compromise tends to come only after members learn to relate to each other as actual human beings. Being part of a united American team overseas also reminds them of the common concerns they share – in this case, as Cantor rightly notes in a statement, promoting peace and stability in Asia, and keeping an eye on North Korean aggression and the exploding economic power of China.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

It’s a sign of how divided Washington has become that the presence of a single Democrat qualifies the trip as “bipartisan” (and it’s wrong to assume only one Democrat was invited; the partisan tenor on the Hill goes both ways). CODELs such as the Asia trip are good for Congress and good for helping members understand not only foreign affairs, but each other. What a shame there isn’t more genuinely bipartisan trip-taking.