Members of Congress and their staff racked up almost $15 million worth of foreign travel in 2009, but Congress didnt have to pay the tab.
Under a Korean War-era law governing Congressional foreign travel, Congress doesnt 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 committees or the Members 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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.