While the rest of Congress was struggling to avoid the dreaded fiscal cliff late last year, then-Sen. John Kerry whisked off to London with a top aide. It was a classic farewell trip for a veteran Democrat about to become America’s next secretary of state.
What wasn’t classic was the cost to taxpayers: $17,500 for two airline tickets to London that normally cost just $3,000.
Across the Capitol, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor commandeered a VIP military flight and dashed off to Switzerland with half-dozen Republican colleagues in late January, just days after a congressional vote to suspend the debt limit and avert another fiscal crisis. The jaunt – for a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos – likely set back taxpayers more than $50,000.
And not to be outdone by their jet-setting bosses, more than a dozen congressional staffers from both political parties took a winter trip to sunny, warm Las Vegas at the expense of special interests Their weighty assignment? Check out the gadgets at the city’s annual consumer electronics expo.
While most in Washington have been preaching the gospel of fiscal discipline, members of Congress and their top aides have done little to rein in their own travel in the face of the sequester budget cuts and soon-approaching national debt ceiling, a Washington Guardian review of travel records found. In fact, they’ve been spending more on travel than in prior years.
Members of Congress and their staffers spent $1.45 million on official taxpayer trips in 2012, up about $230,000 from the year before. And in the first three months of 2013, lawmakers and staff took another $800,000 in trips at the expense of special interests, nearly $100,000 more than the same period last year, according to the official travel records compiled by Congress and stored on the PoliticalMoneyLine.com site.
It’s enough to make some roll their eyes.
“How lawmakers spend taxpayer funds on themselves is a window into their budgetary soul,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense. “If they can’t be responsible with their own travel expenses, how can we expect them to be good stewards of the treasury as a whole?”
Confronted by their far-reaching travel in the midst of budget crises, congressional officials told the Washington Guardian they were just beginning to set new policies to rein in their travel expenses in the aftermath of the sequester.
“We expect to finalize guidelines and implement new procedures with the goal of reducing the budget,” explained Patricia Enright, a spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that sent Kerry on his trip to England. “We’re exploring ways to save money while ensuring members and staff have the resources they need to travel internationally as they pursue work on committee priorities.”
The contrast between the rhetoric calling for government belt-tightening and the sense of entitlement on Capitol Hill abound in the latest travel reports. They detail millions of dollars in privately funded and taxpayer-paid trips over the last year, even as the U.S. government flirted with financial calamity in such dramas as the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling and the budget sequester.
For instance, Kerry’s trip across the pond last November with Bill Danvers, his top aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wracked up $17,500 in airfare alone, at least six times more expensive than the average roundtrip coach fare to London available on most Web travel sites.
Kerry’s trip ran up $4,700 in other expenses, according to his trip report to Congress, which offered no explanation for the travel or the high costs.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee said it did not have any information on why Kerry’s tickets cost so much, or why he even went on such a trip when he was winding down his Senate career and preparing to join the Cabinet.
A State Department official with knowledge of Kerry’s trip said the flight was last-minute because there was late voting in the Senate on Nov. 14, the day the two flew to London.
“To help offset the cost at the time Sen. Kerry stayed at the Ambassador’s residence, not at a hotel,” the official said.
Further, Kerry only spent “$67.60 of his per diem and returned the other $952.40,” the official said.
But the official couldn’t explain the purpose of the trip of the total pricetag further.
Meanwhile, Kerry’s colleague on the committee, Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho, also traveled abroad, visiting Georgia and Turkey early this year. His round-trip airfare cost almost $11,800. Two aides who joined the senator traveled much more cheaply, at about half the airfare of their boss, the travel records show.
Provided with documentation of the cost of the trips, Risch’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
Traveling in groups is a favorite pasttime of lawmakers, one that hasn’t changed during hard times.
In late February, over the President’s Day recess in Congress, Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, David Loebsack, D-Iowa, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Brett Guthrie, R- Kentucky, and Tom Marino, R-Pa., boarded a military jet for a multi-day trip to Belgium, just days before the budget sequester hit. They took along two staffers as well, a large contingent for a House Armed Services Committee visit to a friendly ally that hosts NATO’s headquarters.
Similarly, Cantor, along with one of the richest members of the House, California Republican Darrell Issa, and six other colleagues, traveled to Switzerland for several days, using military flights. They charged taxpayers $9,545.35 for per diem costs, but they did not list what the Defense Department charged them for their military air flights. That section of the travel expense report simply lists “MILAIR” without the charge.
The actual cost of the lawmakers’ military travel isn’t known because the Pentagon hasn’t yet calculated its flying costs for each aircraft for 2013. But the reimbursement rate for trips aboard the most common military jet used to shuttle lawmakers is around $6,000 per person, meaning the Belgium trip cost at least $42,000, Pentagon officials said.
Ellis said extravagant travel costs — like first-class tickets and military VIP flights — should come out of the pocket of the lawmakers, not the taxpayer.
“Lawmakers fail to recognize they are seers of the taxpayer dollar,” he said.
The Air Force says it has not changed the reimbursement rates yet for congressional travel despite the sequester. “There has been no change to the CPH due to sequestration, however, the availability of aircraft for congressional travel has been reduced,” Air Force Capt. Natasha Waggoner told the Washington Guardian.
Kent Cooper, a longtime expert on congressional ethics, spending and fundraising, said the cost of official trips, dubbed CODELs, should be more open to the public, especially when it comes to the use of military aircraft.
“The true costs of CODELs should be much more transparent, especially on transportation costs, which is the largest component. Up to now CODEL travel reports usually state that military transportation was used and no true or even estimated cost is disclosed,” said Cooper, who runs CQ’s Political Money Line. “Admitting the real travel costs is the first step.”
Those who have participated in such trips, especially congressional travel paid by private interests, admit there is a leisure component that often overshadows the official purpose of the trip.
“It is definitely the location you want to go to for these type of things,” said a congressional aide who has attended a number of events like the one in Las Vegas. “You’re working, but these events aren’t necessary. The better the location, the higher the cost for the taxpayer because more of us go.”