Dr. P.V. Viswanath
Lawmakers' Travel Reports Understate True Cost: Filings Don't Account for Full Expense of Using Military Aircraft and Paying Staffers Who Organize Overseas Trips
WASHINGTON -- On Christmas Day, Sen. Arlen Specter flew to Europe and the Middle East for 11 days of meetings with government officials.
The travel-disclosure form the Pennsylvania Democrat filed for the trip reported the seven-country tour with his wife, an aide and two military officials on a private military jet cost $571 a person, or a total of about $2,800.
The real cost was far higher, in excess of $70,000, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
Mr. Specter's travel report is one of scores of examples of the gap between the expenditures congressional delegations are required to report and what the trips actually cost taxpayers.
A Journal analysis of 60,000 travel records shows that lawmakers disclosed spending about $13 million in 2008 on overseas congressional delegations, or codels. That is nearly a tenfold increase since 1995, the analysis shows.
But the total tab disclosed by Congress is only a fraction of the true cost to taxpayers, according to the Journal's analysis.
Under a 1970s law that authorizes taxpayer-funded codels, lawmakers only must disclose how much they spent on lodging, meals, ground transportation and other incidental expenses. Members of Congress also must make public their spending on commercial airfare, though most lawmakers fly on military planes, which don't have to be disclosed.
Mr. Specter's disclosure form reports that he spent $1,103 for food and accommodations. The aide that accompanied him spent $1,750, according to the disclosure form. The cost of food, hotels and transportation for the two military officials was not disclosed.
Kate Kelly, a spokeswoman for Mr. Specter, said her boss "meticulously complies with Senate reporting requirements, reimburses the Treasury with unused per diem, and customarily files an extensive trip report describing the substance of his meetings with foreign officials." She added that the cost of codels is a "good investment considering the insights gained on billions of dollars of foreign aid."
Mr. Specter pays for his wife's share of accommodations out of his own pocket, Ms. Kelly said.
Last week, Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.) introduced legislation that would require lawmakers to disclose the costs of their military air travel unless they are visiting U.S. troops. The bill so far has one co-sponsor, Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas).
"Both parties keep saying that we need to be honest with the taxpayers and let them know how the money is being spent," Mr. Jones said in an interview.
In February, Rep. Ike Skelton (D., Mo.) and 10 other lawmakers reported that their four-day trip to Hawaii, Guam, Japan and South Korea cost taxpayers $465 a person. Later that month, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.) and a delegation of lawmakers went to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Hungry for five days, according to congressional records. The disclosed cost was $254 a person. A spokeswoman for Mr. Skelton said he couldn't be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Mr. Lynch declined to comment.
In early 2008, Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) and an aide went to Israel, Dubai and Prague and reported total expenses of $529 per person, according to a public report the senator filed. Sen. Kyl couldn't be reached for comment, according to a spokesman.
Another big unknown expense is the salaries and overhead of the nearly two-dozen government employees who organize codels. The State Department alone has eight employees working full-time on travel from offices on Capitol Hill. The State Department has not responded to requests for comment on its involvement with congressional travel.
The Department of Defense doesn't disclose the cost of maintaining a fleet of 16 passenger planes that are primarily used by lawmakers and other government officials. Documents obtained by the Journal show the costs of flying those planes runs between $3,000 and $12,000 an hour depending on the type of aircraft, according to a Department of Defense reimbursement schedule.
The cost to fly a small military jet from Washington to the Middle East is about $150,000, according to documents obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Defense Department, in a statement, said that codels are "not a burden for the military, but while we are transparent about the support, it is difficult to ascertain costs...Congress dictates where we take members and we try to carry out that tasking in the most economical manner possible.