Democratic Rep. Brian Baird of Washington state lashed out at the news media Monday, saying sensationalized coverage of taxpayer-funded trips could jeopardize the ability of Congress to learn firsthand about issues such as climate change and ocean acidification.
"They basically are scaring members away from the water," with the result that "we will have no one in Congress who is knowledgeable and has firsthand experience in the ocean," Baird said, referring to stories that have highlighted visits by him and other members of Congress to the Galapagos Islands and the South Pole.
The television news show "Inside Edition" called the June 2008 Galapagos trip "the trip of a lifetime on your dime."
The Wall Street Journal weighed in this weekend with a front-page story on a trip by Baird and nine other members of Congress to the South Pole around New Year's Day 2008. Lawmakers and some spouses went diving and snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, rode a cable car through the Australian rain forest and visited a penguin breeding ground during the 11-day trip, the newspaper reported. The group also stopped in Hawaii on the way home.
Baird, in his sixth term representing southwestern Washington, said the fallout from the stories has him reconsidering his travel plans. As chairman of the House Science panel's Energy and Environment subcommittee, Baird said he has a responsibility to learn all he can about oceans and climate change.
"I'm in a real bind here," he told The Associated Press. "I think I have a responsibility to know about the oceans, for the good of our country. But if these kinds of articles are going to try to make an impression that I am just going on vacation, then I can't do it anymore. And then a passionate voice on behalf of the world's oceans is effectively going to be silenced."
Besides Baird, the trip leader, others on the 11-day trip were Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.; Mike Ross, D-Ark.; Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.; Charlie Melancon, D-La.; John Tanner, D-Tenn.; Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.; Bob Inglis, D-S.C.; Adrian Smith, R-Neb.; and Randy Neugebauer, R- Texas.
In its story, the Journal said the South Pole trip cost taxpayers at least $103,000. That figure, however, does not include the actual flying, because the trip used the Air Force planes, not commercial carriers, the newspaper said. Flight costs would lift the total tab to more than $500,000, based on Defense Department figures for aircraft per-hour operating costs.
Baird called that unfair, saying the trip was one of dozens that members of Congress take every year, many on Air Force planes.
"The Wall Street Journal would have you believe it's an expose' of some sort. I've been talking about the trip since the day I got home" 17 months ago, Baird said. "It had a profound influence in my thinking on global warming."
Besides the South Pole and Galapagos trips, Baird said in the past year he also has been to Israel and the Gaza Strip — twice — as well as Iraq, Afghanistan and Davos, Switzerland — the latter for a meeting of the World Economic Forum.
All but the Davos trip are listed on Baird's congressional Web site under the heading, "My Research Trips."
Baird called international travel important for a member of Congress and said it would be a "tragedy" if such trips had to be curtailed because of bad publicity.
Baird told the Journal the South Pole trip was "more valuable than 100 hearings."
"Are there members of Congress who take trips somewhat recreationally?" he added. "Perhaps. Is this what this trip was about? Absolutely not."