Members of Congress routinely fail to report millions of dollars worth of costs that they are racking up on foreign trips, according to Treasury Department reports on the actual price tag of foreign travel.
Over the past 10 years, the cost of Congressional travel abroad has tripled, from about $6.4 million in 2001 to $19.4 million in 2008, dipping to $17.6 million last year, according to annual reports published by the Treasury Department covering the account that the State Department uses to pay travel costs for Members.
In total, according to the Treasury reports, the government has spent about $110.5 million on Congressional foreign travel since 2001.
That is $30 million to $40 million more than Congress detailed in routine reports published in the Congressional Record on foreign travel expenditures, though those reports are so rife with errors and inconsistencies that it is impossible to get a reliable total for any single year, let alone an aggregate for a decade.
A Roll Call tally of reports published in the Congressional Record indicates that the House and Senate combined have spent about $78 million on foreign travel since 2001. A study published by the Wall Street Journal last year came up with a total of about $73 million.
Whatever the year-by-year or cumulative total, two trends are clear: The amount disclosed by Congress in its public reports is far below the actual costs reported by the Treasury Department, and the total spent on foreign travel has skyrocketed in the past decade.
For example, in 2006 the Senate reported $3.84 million in foreign travel costs and the House reported $5.91 million, for a joint total of $9.75 million for the year.
According to the Treasury Department reports, the total spent out of the Congressional travel accounts that year was $13.94 million.
Neither the Treasury numbers nor the Congressional Record reports include the millions of dollars that the Pentagon spends each year on air travel for Members traveling abroad.
Roll Call reported earlier this year that Congressional foreign travel costs are paid out of a bottomless Treasury account that is replenished without any action by Congress. The account was established by a Korean War-era statute that allows the government to use excess foreign currency to pay the costs of Members and staff traveling abroad.
Travel arrangements are made by the State Department, which also approves the expenditures out of the account. But the State Department refused Roll Calls request for details about the expenditures and said that a Freedom of Information Act request for details on the spending will take a year to process.
Congressional committees and the bipartisan leaders of both chambers are required by law to provide public reports on the expenditures made on their behalf from these accounts to cover the costs of foreign travel. These reports are full of errors and inconsistencies, some of which provide a hint to the millions of dollars that are missing from the disclosures.
Most of the Congressional reports include the per diems that Members and staff are entitled to during their travel, as well as the cost of their transportation (which is frequently zero because the Pentagon is providing the travel). But few of the reports include the on-the-ground costs that the State Department racks up in support of Congressional delegations and charges back to the foreign currency accounts.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.