In mid-December, 14 staffers with the House Homeland Security Committee went on an eight-day trip to Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates that cost taxpayers more than $150,000. It was an official delegation, but no Members of Congress made the trip.
The bipartisan — but primarily Democratic — group of staffers visited ports in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates and met with officials in Turkey to gain "first-hand knowledge of counter-terrorism efforts" there, according to a committee spokesman. They toured the cargo area at an airport in Morocco, viewed port security efforts in Casablanca and learned about Dubai's plans to protect its critical infrastructure.
Congressional delegations overseas are known for providing Members and staffers with an opportunity for learning and team building. But they are also criticized for being expensive and opaque. Reports on the travel in the Congressional Record provide little information about the true cost or purpose of the trips.
As Roll Call has previously reported, Congressional travel is paid for out of a bottomless account at the Treasury Department, so there is no incentive for travelers to pare back trip costs.
Over the eight-day December staff trip, commercial airfare totaled almost $140,000, including $17,682 to fly a committee staffer whose salary during the last three months of the year was $23,750, according to Congressional pay records.
An online search for airline tickets produced a similar itinerary as the staff trip for $5,580 in coach or $8,301 in business class.
Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) said similar staffer travel caught his eye. The lawmaker asked the Congressional Research Service to look into international Congressional travel since 1994. Based on the findings in that report, Johnson has introduced two pieces of legislation since the beginning of the year to curb the use and cost of CODELs.
The first proposed bill, H.R. 638, would impose a moratorium on such travel until an audit can be completed and recommendations can be made. The second, H.R. 882, would require such trips to be paid for out of funds appropriated for Congressional salaries and expenses. Both are currently in committee.
"We're not trying to eliminate CODELs, we're trying to limit their cost and bring accountability and transparency into the process," Johnson said.
So far this year, more than $1.6 million in travel costs for Members and staffers have been reported in the Congressional Record, most for trips in January, February and the latter half of last year. But this figure likely represents only a fraction of the actual cost of sending delegations overseas.
In general, Congress discloses only per diem and commercial travel costs, leaving out a host of other expenses such as overtime for embassy staff, baggage handling fees and other related expenditures. The transportation expenses of Members and staffers who travel on government-owned aircraft instead of purchasing commercial airfare also are not accounted for in the Congressional Record.
"It doesn't even scratch the surface because the real travel tab would have to include the cost spent on military aircraft, but that doesn't have to be disclosed by the Department of Defense," Johnson said. "It's paid through a combination of two different departments and, ultimately, all you have to do is present a bill and it's paid with no limitations. The money basically ends up being an unlimited credit card."
Annual Treasury Department reports indicate that the cost of Congressional foreign travel tripled from about $6.4 million in 2001 to $19.4 million in 2008, coming in at $17.6 million in 2009. The government has spent more than $110.5 million on sending Members and staffers abroad since 2001, according to the Treasury reports, though only a fraction of that is accounted for in the Congressional Record.
Johnson hopes his legislation can provide a path to both help ensure Congressional travel abroad is for a truly legitimate and not "tangential" purpose and to rein in the cost of the trips that do occur.
"At a time when we're going to increase the national debt, to have this unlimited spigot of money with no criteria or standards built into it ... it's not dishonest, but it's not appropriate," Johnson said.
But some still defend foreign travel for staff. "For committee staff, who don't necessarily have a constituency they're responding to other than the Members, it is an opportunity for them to learn firsthand what's going on in other parts of the world," said Lanier Avant, the Democratic staff director who led the December trip.
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.