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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.

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 commission’s 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.

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