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Senate’s Costs for Foreign Travel May Set Record

The Senate is on pace to set an all-time high for foreign travel costs this year, with a burn rate that is 30 percent higher than the first half of last year.

According to travel disclosures published in the Congressional Record, from Jan. 1 to July 1 the federal government spent $2.6 million to cover the costs of overseas travel for Senators and their staff. Over the same period last year, the Senate reported foreign travel costs of just more than $2 million.

At the current rate, the Senate’s reported travel tab for the year would exceed $5 million for the first time, and that number dramatically understates the true costs to taxpayers of the chamber’s trips abroad.

As Roll Call reported last week, the Congressional Research Service recently tallied Congressional foreign travel expenditure reports and concluded that the cost of these trips has more than tripled since 1994. That year, the Senate reported spending $1.3 million on foreign travel; in 2002 that total had risen to $2.6 million, and in 2008 the Senate reported spending $4.9 million, according to the CRS. Last year the total dropped to $4.4 million.

Congressional foreign travel is paid for out of two standing “foreign currency” accounts in the U.S. Treasury that automatically refill themselves, and Congress does not have to appropriate money for these trips. There is also no budget for Congressional travel, so Members of Congress never have to inquire how much money is left for travel in a given year.

Congressional Record reports only tell a portion of the story. Roll Call has previously reported that these reports leave out millions of dollars of expenses that the State Department charges to the foreign currency accounts in support of Congressional trips. While Senate reports have disclosed about $27.7 million in travel costs since 2001, Treasury Department reports indicate that the actual total for that period is about $36.8 million.

These costs also do not include the tens of millions of dollars spent by the Pentagon providing the aircraft for the lion’s share of Congressional trips and other expenses, which come out of agency budgets to support Members traveling abroad.

Thus, the Congressional travel totals include very few entries for trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, because almost all of the Congressional travel in war zones is controlled and paid for by the military.

Senate travel costs have jumped this year despite a significant reduction in expenses in the Foreign Relations Committee, generally a large cost center for foreign travel.

A spokesman for Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry said the Massachusetts Democrat has made “an ongoing effort to reduce foreign travel costs as much as possible.” In the first half of 2009, the committee reported $578,000 in foreign travel expenses, but only $435,000 for the same period this year.

Major travel expenses for the first half of this year include a spring Finance Committee trip to Vietnam and Singapore by 18 committee and personal office staff members at a total reported cost of about $240,000. A committee aide said this trip was in connection with the start of negotiations over a possible Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that would include the U.S., Vietnam and Singapore and would be within the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

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