Despite Rules, Drivers Wanted

Posted September 28, 2008 at 4:51pm

Senate rules prohibit the use of taxpayer money to cover the commuting costs of Members and staff, but that rule apparently does not prevent many Senators from being chauffeured to and from work at no cost to themselves.

Under Senate rules, official resources — and staff — cannot be used for conducting personal errands, and the Senate handbook specifically states that “commuting expenses” are among the bills that “can not be paid or reimbursed from Senate funds.”

But Roll Call identified a half-dozen Senate offices that are reimbursing D.C.-based staff members for a significant amount of mileage, apparently including the Senators’ commute. Many others are apparently being picked up by Congressional staff, but these staff members are not being reimbursed for mileage.

Beth Provenzano, deputy chief of staff for the Secretary of the Senate, said her office, which is responsible for the reimbursement checks, “has no way of knowing how each Member used their staff.” Staff driving “is a matter that each office deals with on their own,” she said.

But Provenzano also pointed out that the language of the prohibition on commuting costs does not include a specific prohibition on staff driving. The rule “doesn’t address that issue,” she said.

Howard Gantman, staff director for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said in an e-mail to Roll Call that the Senate “has a standing order that reimbursements and payments from the contingent fund of the Senate shall not be made for commuting expenses. At the same time, Senate rules and regulations give each Senator discretion in determining the work assignments of members of their own office so long as they don’t engage in political activity, commercial activity, fund-raising, etc., while on duty. As such, whether or not a Member decides that an individual should be reimbursed for travel expenses and mileage while on duty is up to that member as long as it is for official Senate business and does not involve prohibited activity.”

The offices offer different explanations for why the practice complies with the rules.

For instance, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is regularly driven to and from work and around town by a staff member, according to spokesman Clay Westrope. But the staff member is only reimbursed for those trips that carry the Senator to an official event. If the Senator is just going from home to work or vice versa, the staff member is not reimbursed, Westrope said.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) has a similar explanation.

Spokesman Eric Kleiman said Bayh has a staff member who picks him up in the morning, but “if he goes straight from the house to work, that is not reimbursed.” Kleiman points out that Bayh has recently increased the per-mile reimbursement rate for staff members, in part to cover the rising cost of gas and in part to make up for the fact that some of the trips are not being reimbursed.

Kleiman also points out that it is rare that Bayh goes directly from home to work, because he typically goes to meetings or events, and for those trips, there is no rule limiting the ability of staff to drive the Senator. “We only reimburse for allowable travel,” Kleiman said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) gets picked up in the morning and her staff members get reimbursed for the drive, but her office explains that she sought legal advice to make sure the practice was appropriate.

Spokesman Matt Mackowiak said: “We checked with legal counsel and we have verified that all we are doing is according to protocols. … We did go to the length of verifying that this was responsible way to handle this.” He also underscored that many other Senators have similar arrangements.

Mackowiak also suggests that there is a security component to the Senator’s driving arrangements, given the fact that earlier this year a man was indicted for stalking her in Texas.

The Secretary of the Senate has reported large payments to staffers for Bayh, Hutchison and Nelson in reimbursements for “staff travel” in their Washington, D.C., offices. From Oct. 1 to March 31, staffers in Hutchison’s D.C. office were reimbursed for about $2,800 worth of “interdepartmental travel,” Bayh’s office about $2,300 and Nelson’s office about $1,500. There is no way to tell from the disbursement reports which — if any — of this travel was for the Senators’ commutes.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) spent out of his D.C. office about $1,000 on travel during the same period. A Whitehouse staff member was listed as having a travel reimbursement of at least $7 a day for essentially every weekday that the Senator was in Washington.

Whitehouse spokeswoman Alex Swartsel said, “The Senator doesn’t have a car in Washington, and is driven to and from work, and to official functions out of the office, by a staff member.” In response to Roll Call’s inquiries, “We’re reviewing our policies regarding reimbursement for this with the Rules Committee,” Swartsel said.

Most Senators have larger reimbursement totals for staff in their district offices; Senators would be unlikely to have a car at each district office location and probably would need to be driven during visits there. In addition, district office staff members are far more likely than their D.C. counterparts to use their personal vehicles for traveling between offices or driving around the state for constituent service projects.

Other Senators are also driven to and from work by staff members, but the costs of this service do not appear in the Senate financial reports, either because staff are not reimbursed for mileage or they are driving a rented vehicle or the Senator’s personal vehicle.

For instance, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) is driven in his own car. A spokeswoman in his office wrote in an e-mail: “Consistent with Senate Rules for use of official funds, Senator Bond utilizes staff time for performance of his official duties, including transit to and from the Senate, official travel and engagements in his role as a Senator.”

Senate staff members argue that for their bosses, the trip from home frequently is also a trip to a meeting or an off-the-Hill event, or another activity that is not a routine home-to-work commute. In addition, they point out that the drive itself becomes working time when the Senator has someone else driving. In many cases, the driver is briefing the Senator, or the Senator is on the phone with other staff or reading briefing materials in the car. In these cases, the taxpayer is getting more work out of the Senator than if the Senator were sitting behind the wheel.

“Obviously you can’t use taxpayer money for personal use,” said Beverly Bell, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which advises Congressional offices. “But it could be open for a lot of interpretation, like, ‘We were going over my schedule for the next day’ or ‘We were discussing a speech I was going to give,’” she said.

But Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, said: “If the Senate intends to have expense rules prohibiting commuting expenses, then Senators have to follow them, too. Otherwise the rules have to be revised. It is not that simply ignoring a rule makes it go away.”