Members of Congress and their staff racked up almost $15 million worth of foreign travel in 2009, but Congress didn't have to pay the tab.
Under a Korean War-era law governing Congressional foreign travel, Congress doesn't pay for its own trips abroad, and there is no apparent limit on what the government can spend for Members' hotels, taxicabs and room service.
When a Congressional committee holds a field hearing in Wisconsin or a Member of Congress flies to a conference in Arkansas with a few staff members, those travel costs are paid for out of the annual budgets of either the committee's or the Member's office.
But when a Congressional delegation travels overseas, the accommodations are made by the State Department and billed back to a government account that automatically refills itself and has no spending limit attached.
The travel account dates back to a 1950s law that allowed the U.S. government to hold excess "foreign currency" in accounts around the world and use those balances to pay on-the-ground expenses of visiting Congressional delegations.
For years, the Treasury Department used revenues from sales of grain abroad or the income from foreign assistance loans to pay for Congressional travel, but in 1977 the U.S. comptroller general ruled that practice out of bounds.
So Congress amended the provision in 1978 to establish that "whenever local currencies owned by the United States are not otherwise available" to pay for local travel costs, "the Treasury shall purchase such local currencies as may be necessary for such purposes, using any funds in the treasury not otherwise appropriated."
Translation: The government can use whatever funds it has lying around to pay the travel costs of Congressional delegations overseas.
This language creates two conditions that are rare in federal budgeting. First, it establishes a "permanent appropriation," meaning Congress does not have to approve spending for its own travel each year, as it does for other Congressional budget items such as office supplies and salaries. Second, the program has no dollar limit. The language authorizes the government to spend whatever it needs to cover the cost of Congressional foreign travel, so Members of Congress never have to ask whether there is enough money left for the next trip they plan to take.
Discovering exactly what has been spent out of the account is almost impossible.
Congress regularly publishes in the Congressional Record reports of "foreign currencies and U.S. dollars utilized" for foreign travel. Last year, according to a Roll Call tally of those reports, House committees reported about $8.7 million in travel expenses, and the Senate reported a little more than $5 million in 2009.
But Roll Call was unable to find any government agency that would verify expenditures from the account or provide accounting records for prior years.
According to Congressional staff and State Department employees, the system operates this way: The Speaker of the House, the chairman of a committee, or the Majority or Minority Leader of the Senate approves a Congressional trip and asks the State Department to arrange it. The State Department makes the arrangements and bills the Congressional travel accounts — one Senate, one House — maintained by the Treasury.
If the delegation is traveling on a military airplane, the Defense Department pays those costs out of its own budget. Roll Call reported last year that the military maintains a fleet of about 375 airplanes that are used for VIP travel — including Congressional travel — and according to military records, these aircraft can cost as much as $20,000 per hour to operate. When a Congressional delegation travels in military aircraft, the cost of the travel is not included in the public disclosures.
When a CODEL uses commercial aircraft, the State Department pays for commercial travel and bills those costs to the same Congressional travel accounts, sources told Roll Call.
Several State Department sources said that other expenses that may be billed to the "foreign currency" accounts include overtime for embassy staff in the host country who work extra hours or weekends to accommodate the travelers; emergency prepaid cell phones for the travelers, programmed with local contact numbers; baggage handling fees; and extra conference rooms in the host hotel for delegation members to use as meeting space or a "control room."
Members of a traveling Congressional delegation also receive a per diem to cover expenses, and this money also comes from the "foreign currency" fund.
The Wall Street Journal reported in March that per diems can be as much as $250 per traveler per day, and most Members simply pocket the cash or use it to go shopping for personal items.
At the end of March, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee and the House Office of Congressional Ethics alleging that "members may be illegally pocketing taxpayer funds" and requesting an investigation of the management of per diems.
Congress does not keep track of how much is spent out of the "foreign currency" accounts.
The Congressional Research Service has no record of studying the costs of Congressional foreign travel, and the Government Accountability Office has issued no reports on the matter since the mid-1980s.
Spokesmen for a half-dozen Congressional committees that have authorized foreign trips said that the State Department pays for all foreign travel.
A spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee said, "Overseas non-DOD funded Congressional travel is paid for through permanent and indefinite budget authority authorized in ... the International Security Assistance Act of 1978 and therefore does not require an annual appropriation."
A Democratic leadership aide referred questions about the Congressional travel accounts to the Treasury Department and said, "The bottom line here is that these are taxpayer dollars and Members are required to disclose the costs of these trips so there is complete transparency on funds spent."
The Treasury Department referred calls to the State Department, where officials said they did not know the source of the funds in the Congressional travel account.
The State Department also refused Roll Call's request for a tally of how much has been spent out of the accounts over the past three years.
A 2007 State Department briefing for Congressional staff, obtained by Roll Call, says only that travel expenses "will be charged against specific congressional travel accounts held by the U.S. Treasury," but it makes no mention of needing to check on available funds for travel.