The costs of overseas trips taken by Senators and their staffers jumped by about 20 percent last year, reaching an all-time high of more than $5 million in publicly reported costs, which is still likely less than half the actual total.
According to travel disclosures published in the Congressional Record, the federal government spent $5.2 million on trips overseas for Senators and their staffs in 2010. The year before, the total figure was about $4.4 million after reaching its previous high of $4.9 million in 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service.
As Roll Call has previously reported, the trip expenses that show up in the Congressional Record represent only a fraction of their true cost, as millions of dollars spent by the Pentagon to provide government aircraft and most of the logistical arrangements handled by the State Department are not included in the Congressional reports.
Congressional foreign travel is paid out of a bottomless account at the Treasury Department that refills itself and does not require appropriations from Congress. Since there is no limit on or budget for travel overseas, there is little incentive for travelers to pare back trip costs or examine the costs of such travel on an annual basis.
Though Senate reports have disclosed about $27.7 million in travel costs in the Congressional Record from 2001 to 2009, according to the CRS, annual Treasury Department reports indicate that its Senate travel account actually paid out about $36.8 million during that period.
Some trips make it clear just how much spending goes undisclosed. When Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and a staffer visited Haiti in February 2010 to survey earthquake damage, for example, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee reported that $25.14 was spent on the trip. The office of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reported sending two staffers to Haiti during the same period for a total cost of only $36.75. Other expenses for the group of bipartisan lawmakers were likely paid by the Pentagon and do not show up in the Congressional Record.
A Reid spokesman declined to discuss the rising cost of foreign travel. In the House, the Speaker sets travel policies, but in the Senate, each committee sets its own policies on travel and chairmen authorize and sign off on trip expenses.
Senators and staffers with the Foreign Relations Committee spent more on travel overseas than those with any other committee. Over the past year, the committee spent nearly $1 million on trips abroad, reporting about $315,000 for trips to Kuwait, Israel, Egypt, Colombia, Uzbekistan, India and other countries from July to September 2010, the highest quarterly expenditures that showed up in the Congressional Record.
Despite the high tallies, committee spokesman Frederick Jones argued that the committee has reduced its travel costs and that the travel taken by Senators and staff is critical to the nation.
Jones said in email that under Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), "travel costs for the Committee have declined every year as a result of our cost containment efforts. This reduction has occurred even as airline ticket prices have climbed over the last two years. We also prepare a cost estimate for each trip before any travel is authorized."
Jones noted that "the Foreign Relations Committee is responsible for overseeing the foreign policy agencies and agenda of the U.S. government and foreign travel is essential to its mission. It is impossible to effectively assess whether the United States is fulfilling its foreign policy objectives without seeing the effects of our policies and getting a firsthand account of what's going on [on] the ground. ... You can't evaluate the most effective ways for the United States to aid the people of Egypt and Tunisia or investigate alleged human rights violations in Burma — recent trips by committee staff — from a desk in Washington."
The Senate Intelligence Committee also reported high travel costs, spending about $815,000 during the year, though the destinations or details about the committee's trips are not disclosed.
The Appropriations Committee reported expenses of about $600,000 in 2010. As the year drew to a close, the committee spent more than $125,000 to send staffers to locations that included Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Germany, Italy and Djibouti.
The expenses that show up in the Congressional Record are typically commercial airfare and per diems used to cover on-the-ground costs such as meals and lodging.
The Senate discloses travel for all committees in a single report each quarter, making it relatively easy to tally costs. In the House, each committee publishes reports on its own and on no apparent schedule, making it much more difficult to assemble a full-year tally.