The State Department has established new procedures for Members of Congress and staff to pay back any excess per diem they receive during overseas trips.
The guidance was issued this summer, shortly after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released new rules limiting the ability of Congressional travelers to request excess per diem allocations and requiring that any per diem advances not spent on official duties be returned to the Treasury.
Congressional travelers receive per diem in cash upon arriving in a foreign country to cover meals, lodging and other official costs. The per diem is doled out in local currency or U.S. dollars, and the rate of pay is determined by the State Department rates for each locale. At the end of the trip, the department helps travelers convert unused local currency back to U.S. dollars.
The Wall Street Journal reported in March that lawmakers and staff routinely pocket excess per diem or use the money to cover personal expenses, shopping or the travel costs of family members.
The House Office of Congressional Ethics has apparently conducted an investigation of a half-dozen Members' use of per diem funds and has referred the matter to the ethics committee for further consideration.
Members and former staff have argued that travel guidelines provided by the State Department ' which coordinates Congressional travel abroad ' were unclear on whether excess per diem needed to be returned. A travel briefing provided for Congressional staff in March 2007 included a 'Congressional Guide for Official Foreign Travel,' which states only that 'unused per diem funds may be returned to the Department by personal check made payable to the U.S. Treasury.'
But a new version of that guide, published by the department in June, spells out detailed procedures for returning excess per diem funds.
The new guide notes that 'Policies on disposition of unused per diem funds vary depending on which body or committee has authorized your travel' and suggests that travelers consult with the authorizing entity to determine what per diem rules apply.
The guide then explains that 'travelers wishing to return unused per diem to the U.S. Treasury should preferably do so through the Congressional Travel Office by personal check or money order.' The guide recommends that travelers produce 'a short memorandum' about the trip, and provides a sample memo indicating the information the travel office will need ' such as traveler name, trip dates and countries visited ' to accept the repayment.
The language of the new guide also appears to discourage Congressional travelers from requesting 'enhanced per diem' above and beyond the standard in-country rate established by the State Department.
The prior version of the guide said a committee authorizing travel 'may authorize an enhanced per diem rate (either by indicating an additional percentage or an additional amount such as $50, $75, $100, etc) in the authorization letters.'
The new guidance includes similar language, but notes that 'unless a specific dollar enhancement is authorized ... the default enhancement is an additional $50' above the normal per diem. The new guide also includes a sample travel authorization memo, which provides sample language for requests such as spouse travel or enhanced security needs. The sample language for enhanced per diem reads 'Enhanced per diem of $50.00 is authorized,' with no mention of the possibility of requesting larger amounts.
In a 2007 memo to committee chairmen, Pelosi wrote that the chairmen 'have the authority to establish guidelines for travel, in a manner consistent with House rules, by the Members and staff of their committee.'
But the new rules she issued in May in a follow-up letter to committee chairmen stated that 'any per diem provided to Members or staff is intended to be expended only for official purposes related to the trip. Excess funds are to be returned to the Treasury' and required written justification for enhanced per diem requests.
In the Senate, the Majority Leader delegates responsibility for travel policies to the various committees.
Roll Call reported earlier this year that per diems, lodging and travel costs for Congressional trips overseas are paid for out of a little-known U.S. Treasury account that automatically refreshes itself without the need for specific appropriations from Congress. Since the account has no defined bottom, Members do not need to set a budget for their travel.
In addition, Roll Call discovered Treasury reports proving that the amount of money spent in support of Congressional travel each year is millions of dollars more than Congress reports in its periodic mandatory public disclosures.