It’s being overshadowed by a simultaneous investigation into the 2012 presidential campaign of Michele Bachmann, but it did catch my attention that another Republican House member, Peter Roskam of Illinois, the fourth-ranking member of the GOP leadership, is under an ethics investigation involving a $24,000 trip he and his wife took to Taiwan in 2011. The details are murky, and mainly involve the relationship between the Taiwan government and a Taiwanese university that was the official sponsor of the trip, and thus was able to get around a U.S. legal prohibition on foreign governments paying for spousal travel.
I don’t have anything in particular to say about Roskam’s ethics, but the case did ring some bells for me, and probably for many people in Washington (and elsewhere) who have over the decades undertaken what everyone called “the Taiwan Junket.” Dating all the way back to the 1970s, it was well known on Capitol Hill that the Taiwanese government–or a foundation that seemed to work closely with said government–would provide deluxe travel to the island for just about anyone with a nexus to power, including congressional staff. I was invited there while I worked in the Senate around 1990 (nobody on Sam Nunn’s personal staff would even think of taking a junket; vacations were hard enough to secure), and finally took the trip in 2002 as part of a group of staff from the Democratic Leadership Council. There was nothing remotely questionable about the trip from a legal or ethics point of view; we were private citizens, and were definitely working long hours. But we all did marvel at the lavishness of food and accommodations and official attention for small fry like us (I did in particular, since I had been in Taiwan before to speak at a conference held by the Democratic Progressive Party, and while the hospitality was generous, it was no more opulent than at any other political conference anywhere).
Very shortly after our trip, a scandal broke out in Taiwan over revelations that all those “Taiwan junkets” and other expenditures such as overseas lobbying were being financed via a shady “slush fund” that the long-ruling Kuomintang Party had set up from treasure brought over from the mainland after the Revolution. I can’t find google-able information on how the scandal was resolved, but it did briefly spill over into allegations of improper payments by Taiwan to Bush administration officials. There was even brief talk of a “Taiwan-gate.”
In any event, the lesson should have been that a small but wealthy country that is diplomatically isolated, and whose political and economic future depends heavily on U.S. policies, might be prone to cutting a few corners. That and the long history of the “Taiwan Junket” should have triggered some alarm bells on Roskom’s staff long before he and his wife boarded the plane to Taipei.