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Millions in Travel Costs Unreported

The rare reports that detail these costs offer an intriguing peek into what else the foreign currency accounts buy Members on the road.

On Sept. 16, 2009, the House Homeland Security Committee published a report on a May trip of 22 people — including Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Reps. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) — to Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Panama.

The report includes a list of expenses for the delegation’s stay in Argentina, including $1,174 for a delegation “control room” in the hotel, $486 for “internet access @ hotel,” $2,000 for employee overtime and $270 for cell phones. The total of these extra costs for the Argentina stay is just under $5,500. These extras are routine on Congressional delegations abroad, but the report included no mention of similar costs at any of the other stops on the trip.

The expense detail for the Argentine visit is exceptionally rare in the Congressional reports; most of the reports exclude these costs entirely, and the ones that do include these expenses generally refer to them simply as “delegation costs” or “other purposes.”

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) led a delegation to Panama for three days in December, and the report that he filed in the Congressional Record indicated only the costs of per diems for the 10 travelers. Asked about other costs of the trip, Boehner’s spokesman said, “We report what we’re supposed to report.”

Despite the wide gaps in reporting, the Congressional reports and the Treasury Department accounting both confirm the dramatic increase in the costs of foreign travel by Congress. According to the Treasury reports, the government spent about $2.3 million in both 2001 and 2002 to cover foreign travel costs for Senators and staff. That total jumped to about $6.6 million in both 2008 and 2009.

The House showed a similar jump in travel costs from 2001 to 2008, rising from $4.1 million to $12.7 million, but that number dipped to $11 million in 2009.

Several staff members in both chambers hypothesized that the increased costs may reflect Members’ growing interest in travel to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, but the reports don’t bear that out. Trips to war zones are conducted almost entirely in the embrace of the Pentagon, so those trips have almost no reported costs from the foreign currency accounts.

Earlier this year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced new rules on foreign travel intended in part to rein in costs. The California Democrat established tighter restrictions on when Members can fly business class and cracked down on Members and staff converting per diem payments to personal use.

In the Senate, travel policies are not centralized in leadership, and each committee sets its own rules. Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) “has insisted on an ongoing effort to reduce foreign travel costs as much as possible.” For example, “We have begun following State Department guidelines regarding coach travel.”

Jones said the committee achieved a 20 percent reduction in travel costs for the first six months of this year compared with the similar period in 2009, though Congressional Record reports indicate that the committee spent more in the first quarter of 2010 than in 2009. The committee’s second-quarter report will not be published until later this summer.

Alex Knott and Jessica Estepa contributed to this report.

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