Congressional Delegations—personal experiences
Congressional travel is a primary means by which members of Congress and their staffs interact with FSOs.
A Congressional Staffer Vignette
“Until now everything had gone rather smoothly and the main purpose of our trip - to review and evaluate the situation in South Asia- had been successfully accomplished. The return stopover in Athens, however, was a different story. Just before we stepped onto the plane in New Delhi, the embassy control officer handed me a disturbing telegram from Athens that infuriated the congressman. Our long-held reservations at the Hotel Grande Bretagne had been canceled owing to “circumstances beyond the embassy’s control.” The embassy blamed the hotel, which allegedly “overbooked”; it all had something to do with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s impending official visit to Greece the following week. Instead we were to stay in “first class” facilities in the port city of Piraeus, somewhat distant from the capital’s center. Peter (Congressman Frelinghuysen) was not at all pleased with the last-minute change and the more he mulled over it, the more it seemed like an affront...
We arrived at the Athens airport at approximately 2:00 am and were met by a Greek driver from the embassy. Peter started to upbraid him for all the embassy’s sins until it became apparent that he spoke no English. He only had orders to take us to our “luxurious” first class quarters, which turned out to be a kind of motel complex with individual cabins located in the middle of nowhere...
The next morning our control officer arrived. He turned out to be an innocent young third secretary on his first assignment abroad. He had never before been assigned to a CODEL and was substituting for the administrative officer, who allegedly had a scheduling conflict…
Eventually, some weeks after our return to Washington, Peter received a letter of apology from Ambassador Tasca, which I was told was requested by Assistant Secretary Sisco. The best feature of our Greek sojourn was that it only lasted a couple of days and was finally over.”
Chapman, John Chester. From Foggy Bottom to Capitol Hill. Arlington, VA. Arlington Hall Press, 2000.
A Congressman’s Perspective
“I found it fascinating. Intellectually, I am a fairly curious person. But these were not vacations. On a typical trip, I would start out in the country maybe at 7:30 am with a working breakfast. I often had two working breakfasts. Then I would insist on a schedule which I must say the embassies almost without exception were very accommodating in setting up for me (I never could have done it without the help that they gave me.), but I would generally insist on a schedule where I would have one meeting after another without any break, generally about an hour's duration, together with working breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. So I would usually start out at 7:30 am and go until 11:00 or later at night.
But one of the things that amazed me was how much you could learn about the problems we had to deal with in a particular country in a relatively brief period of time if you went at it in a very intensive fashion. You could spend three or four days in a country and if you went from early in the morning until late at night, and you had access to the key people in the country, the leaders of the government, the leaders of the opposition if there was an opposition, leading intellectuals, your own embassy, other foreign diplomats, journalists, businessmen, students, and others, by the time you left, you came away with a pretty good fix on what the problems were, what the options were, what the possibilities were.”
Former Congressman Steven Solarz, Oral History Interview, November 18, 1996.
Foreign Service Perspectives
“Our biggest problem in 1979 was handling the eight different CODELS that descended on Leningrad, typically on weekends. Each delegation usually consisted of two plane loads of Congressmen and Senators and their wives and staff, none of whom was often very interested in being briefed about Leningrad. They were there for a good time. They offered an opportunity, however, for us to meet local officials, who were otherwise unapproachable. I took particular satisfaction in persuading the Ribicoff-Bellman delegation that it should try to meet with the First Secretary of Leningrad, Grigoriy Romanov, a tough little ideologue, very combative, a Napoleonic disposition. I knew him only from occasional verbal bouts with him on November 7, or May First. The Politburo obviously wanted the delegation to meet a much smoother member, Masherov, of Bylorussia, but, on my urging, the delegation pressed to meet with Romanov. Ambassador Malcolm Toon supported my request, and accompanied the delegation when it met with Romanov. What Romanov told us about his personality during this visit suggested that, had he won out in the power struggle that followed Brezhnev's death, rather than Gorbachev, we would not have had an end to the Cold War, but rather the reverse.
Small examples: Ribicoff spoke without notes, just off the cuff. It was always rather difficult for an interpreter to follow. In the middle of a long speech by Ribicoff, our interpreter instead of referring to the ‘tomb’ of the people who had been martyred, if you will, in World War II, he referred to the ‘grave.’ In the middle of the speech Romanov interrupted and chastised the interpreter, saying, ‘If you are an interpreter you should know the difference between a tomb and a grave.’ He was feisty and bad mannered. Bellman started talking about trade, trying to be polite to supplement what Ribicoff had said. Romanov interrupted saying, ‘We don't need your trade.’ After dinner, where Romanov had all the fine artists of Leningrad perform for them at the guest house, I heard him talking to the senators saying, ‘And you mustn't believe the things your Consul General writes about me and about Leningrad.’”
Thompson R. Buchanan, ADST Oral History Interview, March 15, 1996.
“We did have a lot of CODELs and often on long weekends: Labor Day or Easter or something like that. People used to say, ‘You must get tired of those.’ Well, I didn't, because I felt it was so important that they come and visit SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] and understand about NATO. There were so many governors, Congressmen, just groups who would say, ‘But we had no idea what NATO was all about; what it's doing and how wonderful this is.’ Wives, as well as husbands. I often had to cancel [other] plans for weekends, but, again, that was part of the job.”
Ambassador Anne Cox Chambers, ADST Oral History Interview, October 23, 1985.
“I think that Foreign Service officers tend to shy away from getting involved with the Congress. And I think some of that stems from our primary contact with members of Congress, and that's those who come out on Congressional delegations when we're serving abroad. By and large, those visits are difficult. We tend to regard members of Congress as meddling in foreign policy, that their interests and priorities do not necessarily match ours. Theirs tend to be oriented toward their constituencies; their views tend to be short-term. Whereas we are concerned about longer-term relations abroad. I think that, therefore, we build up this kind of negative impression, and I think some of it's quite justified.”
Ambassador Walter L. Cutler, ADST Oral History Interview, September 15, 1989.
“I developed two approaches for handling visiting delegations, whether they were congressional or gubernatorial — we had those, too. We would have a working breakfast in which we would include the wives at the residence. We would have separate tables. We could seat 50 or 60 people in the main dining room. We would have the key officers of the embassy come and brief the Americans before they went to meet with the Dutch. This made sense for two reasons. First, we would give them the briefing before they went. Second, we wasted very little of their time because you have to eat breakfast. We would serve them a southern breakfast with grits, ham and eggs, etc. Then we would do the briefing. We had it down until it was almost scientific. We would give them a chance to ask their questions, etc., plus we included the wives. It was their opportunity to be in — the briefings were unclassified. We would have a separate briefing if it was classified. We did have a lot of Congressional visits.
The other thing I worked out for distinguished visitors, and we had several of those, is I would have a stag dinner. Women might be there, but it was not spouses. After dinner, we would go into the main living room and the distinguished visitor and I would sit side by side. He'd be there and I'd be here, the fireplace is in-between, nice roaring fire if it was wintertime. We would start off chatting. I would have three or four things, fairly provocative enough to start the thing going. Then the other eight, 10, 12, 14 people sitting around would chime in. This worked out beautifully. The thing would go on for an hour and half or two hours.”
Ambassador William J. Dyess, ADST Oral History Interview, March 29, 1989.
“I can remember one occasion, again I was Chargé, when a very large group of Congressmen came...This might have been the Wolfe/Solarz group, but I am not sure. Anyway, they were a large group, so large that we had to hold our dinner party in the garden of the house that the Ambassador was temporarily using. My wife worked very hard in somebody else's house to put this affair on, and it was going quite nicely. It was just about to reach the breakup point when this lady appeared, uninvited, wearing a two- piece dress which exposed her midriff (the Korean women -- all in modest Korean dress -- were shocked). In a loud voice, she invited the entire CODEL to come with her up to the big Kisaeng house way up on the top of the hill on the northern side of the city. I went along with them to see what would happen. It was a full blown Kisaeng party -- music, girls, dancing, scotch, food. The Congressional wives were along, which was seldom the case. This was her idea of how to win friends for her country, I guess, and her guests had a great time. But all this had to be funded from somewhere. A party at a place like that for 45 people is a mighty expensive affair.”
Ambassador Richard A. Ericson, Jr., ADST Oral History Interview, March 27, 1995.
“I am a great believer in the value of congressional visits. We welcomed them even in the overwhelming numbers that came to Jerusalem. Each visit provided an opportunity to present the situation as we saw it, and enter into a dialogue, sometimes profitable and always intense, with members of Congress and their staffs. Our visitors were a captive audience and were interested in Palestinians, even those members of the House and Senate who favored Likud's policies. By and large CODELS are serious trips undertaken for the primary purpose of learning.
The CODELS I briefed rather endlessly came in the wake of the Camp David Accords. I often invited Palestinians to the residence to meet with American legislators directly, and tried to get Palestinians themselves to present their views to the CODELS. Occasionally, Palestinians refused to come in protest against the Congress, which they considered the instrument of their misfortunes through its aid appropriations to Israel. I tried to expose visitors to a broad spectrum of Palestinian views, but because some of the most articulate among them would not come to my home, they threw away valuable opportunities to put their case to American legislators. ”
Ambassador Brandon H. Grove, Jr., ADST Oral History Interview, November 14, 1994.