Most taxpayers will never pay $10,000 in flights for an overseas trip, but in the year prior to 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 24% increase over the year before, according to Congress’ own accounting.
And 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 include 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 officials, 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 War-era 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. So 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 February 2016 trip to Belgium. 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.
Sometime last summer (the Senate does not report travel dates), then-senator 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, D-Ind., made a late 2016 trip to Georgia, Slovakia and the Ukraine with travel costs reported in the Congressional Record as $24,402.48. But his office says the actual airfare was around $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 are flying on military aircraft, and the Pentagon simply absorbs the costs of the flights. But that does not mean the trips are without cost to the taxpayer. 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 and six other lawmakers accompanied by six staff members racked up $98,613 in expenses on a weeklong 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 around $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.
“The increased spending results from a directive issued by Chairman Nunes for (committee) members to spend more time in the field,” said spokesman Jack Langer. “When dealing with intelligence issues, that’s really the crucial way to gain relevant information. Additionally, HPSCI travel costs tend to be relatively high because Members often travel to unusual, hard-to-reach locations.”
Likewise, the Senate Intelligence Committee spent $330,000 on foreign trips in fiscal year 2015 but just under $1 million in fiscal 2016. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., became chairman of the committee in 2015.
“All committee travel is jointly approved by the chairman and vice chairman,” said Senate Intelligence Committee spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins. “It is a priority for the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct oversight in the field, and that was an important commitment the Committee made over the last two years.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee topped all other committees with a $2.1 million reported travel tab in 2016, up from $1.6 million the year before.
“In 2016, the global threat posed by ISIL and other terrorist groups, Russia’s destabilizing behavior in Eastern Europe and military intervention in Syria, and China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas drove increasing demand for rigorous congressional oversight,” said committee spokesman Dustin Walker. “The American people expect their elected representatives to hold the executive branch accountable not by taking its word, but by seeking out the ground truth wherever American blood and treasure are at risk.”
Taxpayers fund a first-class congressional foreign travel boom – USA TODAY