The “CODEL” Tradition: How Foreign Travel Helps Congress at Home

Known as the Congressional Delegation and abbreviated as Hill-speak for CODEL, the trip distanced Tillis and Murphy from the often vicious partisan culture of the Capitol and built them a relationship that has proven, as explained by the Republican, essential to the gun deal.

On the CODELs, “we work 12 and 14 hours a day, sometimes we travel two or three hours from one country to another,” Tillis said in an interview from the Spanish capital, the site of another foreign delegation. at NATO this year. Mountain peak. “And that puts you in a position where… you build that trust and you build that familiarity, [and] which serves as the basis for accomplishing what we have done.

Many facets of official Washington can seem impenetrably bureaucratic to voters who send lawmakers there, and in some ways CODEL is no exception. But there’s a reason travel is being dubbed a “secret weapon” in a lockdown capital: For more than half a century, visits meant to reassure allies about events in the United States have also helped members of Congress to foster rare human relationships. who can shape future policy – even on matters unrelated to foreign affairs.

On paper, CODELs allow lawmakers to travel abroad to meet with world leaders, diplomats and advocates on a number of national security topics. But in practice, the legislators who join them spend ten times more time together than they do on the Hill each week between committees, staff meetings and votes. The rigid and often scripted nature of their typical daily life essentially disappears, allowing CODELs to function as a counterweight to national polarization.

Modern CODEL member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.) and Tillis organized last week’s eight-member trip to the NATO summit, which included stops in Finland and Sweden. In Madrid, Shaheen was swarmed by foreign journalists who recognized her from her extensive international travels.

“We’re getting to know each other in a way that we don’t often have time to do when we’re actually in the Senate and getting to trust each other,” Shaheen said in an interview on the sidelines of the brouhaha. “Which is really important when you deal with all the issues, really.”

For Tillis and Murphy, a CODEL paved the way for their roles as two of the four negotiators who shape bipartisan gun safety legislation. In some ways, however, their willingness to maintain the kind of give-and-take negotiation that Washington once conducted was a prerequisite even for joining the international journey.

That’s because the most partisan members of the Senate on both sides of the aisle rarely join CODELs, especially those who attempt to profess the ideological purity of their political base. Participating in a delegation essentially requires senators to shed their Democratic or GOP labels — albeit temporarily — and function as de facto diplomats.

“At a time when fewer and fewer members are spending time together during the week, and none on weekends, this really is the best opportunity to spend time away from Washington and hang out in places around the world. whole,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another CODEL veteran who visited Madrid. There, he added, “what unites us as Americans is more important than what divides us as supporters.”

Lawmakers rarely bring in journalists, in part due to security and resource concerns. POLITICO joined last week’s NATO summit CODEL to compare, first-hand, the tradition of lawmakers’ trips with reality.

A legacy from Acheson to McCain

CODELs began in the 1940s, when future Secretary of State Dean Acheson first established the Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs. It was intended to use lawmakers to bolster the Truman administration’s diplomatic efforts, particularly on issues that require congressional buy-in.

“You have an equal branch of government doing diplomacy overseas, which is extremely important, especially when you’re looking to reinforce a message,” said Naz Durakoglu, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs and a former adviser. in Shaheen’s foreign policy.

CODEL in the Spanish capital spoke with one voice to allied nations about the Senate’s near-unanimous support for Sweden’s and Finland’s admission to NATO. In the coming weeks, the chamber is expected to vote on a defense treaty that would put the US government’s approval on the two countries’ entry into the storied Western military alliance. (Formal ratification requires the approval of all 30 member countries.)

The Shaheen-Tillis-led trip also featured an hour-long meeting with President Joe Biden, who attended the summit here. Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is himself an experienced CODEL traveler who credited the trips with fostering his decades-long friendship with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona).

It started like this: Early in Biden’s Senate tenure, McCain served as the House Navy Liaison, a role that allowed him to join CODELs overseas. In a speech 2017McCain joked that he often had to carry senators’ luggage, and “once or twice it turned out to be the young senator from Delaware”.

“I haven’t wanted it since,” McCain joked.

Mark Salter, McCain’s chief of staff and longtime confidant, said the experience helped shape the senator’s future. Getaways were “incubators of friendships across generations and party lines” beyond the formal goals of any CODEL, Salter observed in “The Luckyest Man: Life With John McCain” in 2020.

During McCain’s travels around the world, he often took senators under his wing. That included Sen. Jack Reed (DR.I.), a successor to chair the Armed Services Committee, and Coons, another close friend of Biden.

A more recent case of a CODEL-led alliance is Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), both of whom traveled to Madrid. Ernst, an Army veteran and rising GOP star, has teamed up with Durbin on issues ranging from aid to Ukraine to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.

The Iowa conservative has also found a partner in Shaheen to advance the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan after his government fell to the Taliban.

Senators become emissaries

In his decades-based memoir with McCain, Salter described the late senator as keenly aware of the power of CODELs to help senators dip their toes in the executive waters.

He “saw that diplomacy and the conduct of foreign policy were not the exclusive preserve of presidents and secretaries of state,” Salter wrote. “Senators, too, could acquire the influence of the statesmen of the world.”

And last week, Madrid’s CODEL met with several foreign leaders, including those from Georgia, Sweden, Germany and Japan. (Ernst said the meeting with Premier Fumio Kishida was especially helpful because Iowa has a large beef trade with Japan.)

After meeting with their own president, the GOP senators on the delegation actually praised Biden for helping the summit succeed — another break from their posture in the United States.

“Here we have a bipartisan delegation and a president who have a common goal,” Tillis said. “Back home, maybe not so much.”

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who attended that meeting, praised Biden for spending time with the group, but said she wishes it happened more often in the United States.

“When he left, he said he would like to see us again. Personally, I welcome that. I think it’s important to meet a diverse group of senators,” Fischer said. the president if he contacted us in our country as well as here.”

Not always sunny in CODEL land

While the Balkan trip helped push gun legislation across the finish line, Tillis and Durbin appeared to have productive conversations at the NATO summit on the subject of the third rail of the immigration reform.

Durbin said in an interview in Madrid that he and Tillis have decided to resume their immigration talks, which previously included the Senses. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Alex Padilla (D-California). His comments followed the deaths last month of more than 50 migrants in a Texas trailer.

“Thom and I have sat and talked over and over and we’ll do more, I’m sure,” Durbin said. “Each of those conversations is probably a factor of two or three in what would be the normal contact that we have. Just time without political pressure, personal time, really builds relationships.

Lawmakers say they go to great lengths with CODELs not to discuss the issues that divide them — and there are many — especially when seeking to show congressional unity to their foreign counterparts. For that reason, Coons said, the senators did not speak to each other in Madrid about last month’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Yet CODELs can also trigger occasional domestic divisions.

A group of GOP senators that included more staunch conservatives, such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Kennedy of Louisiana, traveled to Russia during the July 4, 2018 vacation. There they met with Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov in a stated effort to ease tensions after US intelligence. The agencies concluded that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election – and to this day their trip draws condemnation from the left.

Russia has never changed its behavior and is now waging a brutal war against Ukraine.

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