Tax­pay­ers fund $10,000 trips

Congress mem­bers’ travel sets record, and for some law­mak­ers, it’s first class all the way

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Paul Singer

Most tax­pay­ers will never pay $10,000 in flights for an over­seas trip, but in the year be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, tax­pay­ers paid for 557 such trips that each cost more than $10,000 for a mem­ber of Congress or a staffer.

Those five-digit global itin­er­ar­ies made up 40% of all in­di­vid­ual con­gres­sional trips for which travel costs were pub­licly re­ported. By com­par­i­son, less than 0.2% of tick­ets pur­chased by the gen­eral pub­lic through U.S. travel agen­cies in 2015 and 2016 were more than $10,000, ac­cord­ing to the Air­lines Re­port­ing Corp.

The pricey flights were part of a surge in for­eign travel. Congress spent at least $14.7 mil­lion on tax­payer-funded trips in fis­cal year 2016, a 27% in­crease over the year be­fore, ac­cord­ing to Congress’ own ac­count­ing.

That may be a low es­ti­mate. The Trea­sury Depart­ment re­ported that con­gres­sional travel cost nearly $20 mil­lion last year, the high­est fig­ure ever recorded, based on data pro­vided by the State Depart­ment, which ar­ranges of­fi­cial for­eign travel for law­mak­ers. Nei­ther Trea­sury nor State would ex­plain the dis­crep­ancy, but both agen­cies stood by the higher fig­ure.

None of th­ese to­tals in­cludes hun­dreds of other trips for which the mil­i­tary pro­vides trans­porta­tion; the costs of us­ing those mil­i­tary air­craft are never dis­closed.

Law­mak­ers make of­fi­cial trips abroad to con­fer with for­eign offi- cials, to visit U.S. mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and to over­see projects funded by the U.S. gov­ern­ment, among other things.

Congress does not pay for its own flights. Un­der a Korean War­era statute that was up­dated in the 1970s, the Trea­sury Depart­ment is di­rected to pay for con­gres­sional trips over­seas from what­ever funds it has avail­able. Congress does not have to ap­prove spend­ing for its for­eign travel each year, and there is no set dol­lar limit.

When mem­bers of Congress de­cide to travel abroad, the State

Depart­ment makes the ar­range­ments, and Trea­sury pays the bills. There is lit­tle in­cen­tive for law­mak­ers to keep travel costs down. Con­gres­sional com­mit­tees report the trips in er­ror-rid­dled ta­bles printed in the Con­gres­sional Record.

The Con­gres­sional Record re­ports in­clude hun­dreds of trips with jaw-drop­ping ex­penses.

In May 2016, four GOP con­gress­men and three staff mem­bers spent $90,000 on a five-day trip to Al­ba­nia for a NATO sum­mit. Rep Mike Turner, R- Ohio, made the trip for $7,055, but Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., spent $15,222 for trans­porta­tion.

“The ex­penses are due to a last-minute re­turn flight,” said Sensen­bren­ner spokes­woman Ni­cole Tie­man.

Turner was also the low spender on a trip to Bel­gium in Fe­bru­ary 2016. Turner’s trans­porta­tion ex­penses are listed as $499 for that trip; Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, spent $6,694 and Rep. Gerry Con­nolly, D-Va., spent $11,396. Turner ap­par­ently trans­ferred to an­other con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion mid­way through, so the $499 does not re­flect the full cost of his trav­els that week.

Last sum­mer (the Se­nate does not report travel dates), thense­n­a­tor David Vit­ter, R-La., and one staff mem­ber from the Small Busi­ness Com­mit­tee spent $37,000 to travel to the United King­dom and back, ac­cord­ing to the re­ports.

On the bright side, some of the most ex­pen­sive trips are re­port­ing er­rors. Sen. Joe Don­nelly, DInd., made a trip in late 2016 to Ge­or­gia, Slo­vakia and the Ukraine, and the Con­gres­sional Record re­ported travel costs at $24,402.48. His of­fice said the ac­tual air­fare was about $13,000, and the sen­a­tor had no role in choos­ing the flights.

Don­nelly, the top Demo­crat on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee’s Strate­gic Forces Sub­com­mit­tee, made the trip “to re­view U.S.-sup­ported ef­forts to counter the threat of Rus­sian ag­gres­sion and nu­clear and bi­o­log­i­cal ter­ror­ism on the ground in eastern Europe,” spokes­woman Sarah Roth­schild said. “The Army, in co­or­di­na­tion with the State Depart­ment, made all of the sen­a­tor’s travel ar­range­ments, in­clud­ing se­lect­ing and book­ing his flights to Ukraine, Slo­vakia and Ge­or­gia. The State Depart­ment paid for the trip.”

Hun­dreds of con­gres­sional trips show no air­fare at all be­cause the law­mak­ers flew on mil­i­tary air­craft, and the Pen­tagon sim­ply ab­sorbed the costs of the flights. That does not mean the trips are with­out cost to the tax- payer. Be­yond the mil­i­tary plane, there are on-the-ground costs gen­er­ated for ho­tel rooms for se­cu­rity teams, State Depart­ment staff time, in-coun­try trans­porta­tion and the like.

In Oc­to­ber 2015, House Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Chair­man Jeb Hen­sar­ling, R-Texas, and six other law­mak­ers ac­com­pa­nied by six staff mem­bers racked up $98,613 in ex­penses on a week-long trip to Ger­many, Switzer­land and Eng­land — with no air­fare, ac­cord­ing to the report in the Con­gres­sional Record.

The big jump in con­gres­sional travel costs in 2016 — from about $11 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2015 to ei­ther the con­gres­sional es­ti­mate of $15 mil­lion or the Trea­sury es­ti­mate of more than $19 mil­lion — was partly in­ten­tional. Both the House and Se­nate In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees saw enor­mous in­creases in their for­eign travel be­cause new Repub­li­can com­mit­tee chair­men wanted to get out in the field more.

For­eign travel costs re­ported by the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee jumped from $1.1 mil­lion to $1.9 mil­lion af­ter Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., took over the chair­man­ship in 2015.

Like­wise, the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee spent $330,000 on for­eign trips in fis­cal year 2015 but al­most $1 mil­lion in fis­cal 2016.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE, AP

The Trea­sury Depart­ment re­ported that con­gres­sional travel cost nearly $20 mil­lion last year, the high­est fig­ure ever recorded.

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