With COVID on wane, Congress flying high
After 2021 lull, overseas expenses rebound
Taxpayers saved on travel bills during the coronavirus pandemic as Congress dramatically ramped down its foreign expenses – but those trips are back at a rapid clip.
In recent days, senators and representatives have lifted off for Germany, India, the United Arab Emirates and several stops in Africa.
First-class commercial airfare and accommodations for congressional representatives and their staff for official travel is covered by the Treasury Department, with virtually no limits. Those bills trickled to about $1.3 million in fiscal year 2021 but ballooned back to nearly $15 million last year.
That doesn’t account for the hundreds of trips for which the military provides transportation; the costs of using military aircraft are never disclosed.
Lawmakers take the trips – often derided as junkets – to confer with foreign officials, visit U.S. military installations and observe overseas projects funded by the U.S. government. Congress does not have to approve the spending for foreign travel, and there is no set daily dollar limit, trip, office or individual.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, said the taxpayer-funded trips are less problematic than privately backed tours but still lack basic transparency.
“Clearly that $15 million last year is not the whole picture because of undisclosed use of military travel and generally we have a lack of disclosure,” Holman said. “We don’t really know how taxpayer dollars are being used.”
Congressional committees report trips in error-riddled tables printed in the Congressional Record. USA TODAY standardized and analyzed figures from last year for a glimpse of the biggest expenses.
Individual military branches collect detailed receipts for delegation trips but drag their feet in providing that information to the public. USA TODAY only recently received a tranche of U.S. Navy documents via the Freedom of Information Act covering travel from 2014 to 2016.
Those itineraries include detailed dinner tabs and show members of Congress bringing along their spouses on many trips, despite official rules barring them from going except in “unique cases.”
Spouses reimburse the government for food, but not for shared hotels or military travel.
Based solely on the limited expense reports listed in the Congressional Record, Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took the most expensive trip last year.
In May, he traveled to Moldova, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Austria as part of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The U.S. also sent a bipartisan delegation of eight senators and 12 representatives who reported their own expenses separately.
Meeks’ trip accounting came to more than $111,000.
Andrei Vasilescu, a spokesman for the minority Democrats on the committee, said the trip was a complicated itinerary. Costs grew, he said, after military aircraft were unable to transport members and they faced extra housing costs because of the location. The travel carries no requirement to produce public reports about accomplishments.
“The trip was an important time to speak with leaders about the global refugee crisis, food shortages and the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Vasilescu said.
Meeks was the most frequent traveler in the House last year with trips to Poland, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ukraine, Belgium, Finland, Turkey and Greece.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt was the most frequent traveler through three quarters of the year last year, according to the most recent data available. Often committees dealing with the budget, foreign affairs and military contain the frequent flyers.
Records obtained by USA TODAY showed how in 2015, GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s congressional trip was interrupted by a snowstorm, so he hosted Sens. Chris Coons and Mark Warner at the upscale Magnolias restaurant in Charleston with a $538.97 tab, including a $100 tip. Graham staffers say they reimbursed the government for the three bottles of wine they drank.
Last month, Graham led a bipartisan group hopscotching from Munich to Zambia, South Africa, Botswana and Morocco. An itinerary obtained by the news outlet Punchbowl shows time carved out for Victoria Falls and “conversation observations,” which appeared to be safaris that called for “rugged casual” attire.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the second-most frequent flyer in Congress last year. That included her much-publicized trip to Taiwan in August that drew criticism from China.
The Democratic speaker boarded a U.S. Air Force-operated Boeing C-40C on her flight into Taipei from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For other uses, the Air Force charges about $8,000 an hour to operate the 737-style jet. The flight became one of FlightRadar24’s most-tracked in history.
Despite that, the Congressional Record reflects only $283.67 in expenses for the trip, not including the military transports or other shrouded expenses. The speaker also itemized her trips to the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Armenia, Croatia and Egypt last year.
Pelosi’s communications staff did not respond to questions about her overseas travel.