Q: I am chief of staff for a Member of the House who was recently named to a new committee position that will require an increase in his number of official trips overseas. I therefore want to make sure I have a good handle on the rules regarding expenses for these trips. In particular, I know that Members on these trips receive a per diem stipend for meals and other expenses. Are Members required to keep track of their use of this stipend? May they use the funds for meals of foreign officials? And must Members return unused per diem funds? Sorry for all the questions, but I am confused by what appears to be conflicting guidance on these issues.
A: Your confusion about per diem allowances is not surprising. This is a murky area. A little background is in order.
Federal law provides for Members of Congress to be reimbursed for expenses incurred on official foreign trips. Funds for these trips are administered by the State Department on behalf of Congress. In addition to transportation and lodging expenses, Members also receive a per diem allowance for daily meals and incidental expenses.
The per diem rates are established monthly by the State Department on a destination-by-destination basis, based on actual reported costs of daily meals and expenses in cities around the world. If for some reason a Member believes a particular per diem allowance amount will be insufficient, the Member may request his committee to authorize an “enhanced per diem rate.”
So, must Members keep track of their usage of their per diem allowance and return unused funds? The State Department has issued guidance directly on point, under which the answer depends on whether a Member is using an enhanced per diem or the regular per diem. For an enhanced per diem, Members must itemize their expenses and return any unused funds to the State Department. Members using a regular per diem allowance, on the other hand, “may keep any ‘excess funds’ though your authorizing committee may have their own specific rules.” This makes sense given that one of the main purposes of using a per diem stipend is to eliminate the need to itemize expenses while traveling. Federal regulations define the per diem allowance as “a daily payment instead of reimbursement for actual expenses for lodging, meals, and related incidental expenses.”
However, this is not the end of the story. In an investigation last year regarding whether Members had inappropriately used per diem funds, the Office of Congressional Ethics interpreted House rules to require Members to return unused per diem funds even where they receive the regular, unenhanced rate. Under this interpretation, the OCE concluded that six Members may have violated House rules.
On January 3, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., raises her right hand as her son Henry messes up her hair while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., delivers the ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber. Gillibrand's other son Theodore, lower right, looks on.
Each year since 1990, CQ Roll Call has reviewed the financial disclosures of all 541 senators, representatives and delegates to determine the 50 richest members of Congress. This year's report, derived from forms covering the calendar year 2012, shows it took a net worth of $6.67 million to crack the exclusive club.