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The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported $61,000 in travel costs for five staff members visiting the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Yemen early this year, a trip that was apparently in response to the Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner arriving in Detroit. Committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said the staff members visited the Amsterdam airport where Abdulmutallab boarded the plane, then traveled onto Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where al-Qaida has established a bulkhead.
The bicameral Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe reported spending $277,000 over the first six months of 2010, about $80,000 more than last year. About $40,000 of that expense came from the commissions role as an official observer of elections in Ukraine at the beginning of the year.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued new House guidelines for foreign travel in March in an effort to control costs, including new rules limiting the purchase of first-class tickets and mandating that travelers return to the Treasury all unspent per diem funds.
But in the Senate, the Majority Leader does not assert the same kind of control over travel policies. Instead, each committee sets its own policies for travel.
For example, a Finance Committee aide said the panel has adopted its own policies to control travel costs, including requiring itemized receipts for per diem payments and other expenses. In addition the committee has begun requiring individual member offices to approve foreign travel expense reports for their staff prior to submission to the Committee, in order to increase staff incentive to keep cost as low as possible, the aide said.
One Senate staffer suggested that part of the overall growth in travel costs may be explained by the declining value of the dollar overseas, which would drive up the dollar costs of every foreign trip. While it is hard to quantify this effect, it is true that per diem rates set by the State Department to cover in-country food and lodging have nearly doubled over the past 10 years for key locales such as Brussels, Berlin, Dubai and Beijing. But per diem rates for those cities have not jumped over the past 12 months in tandem with the rise in Senate travel expenses.