Put Congress on a Travel Budget
By its own accounting, Congress spent 27 percent more on foreign trips last year than it did in 2015. The Treasury Department, which pays the legislative branch's travel expenses, estimates that Congress spent a record $20 million on overseas trips in 2016. And that only covers commercial flights -- Congress does not itemize the cost of flying on military planes, whose premium services are typically used by large delegations. Nor does Congress account for the costs borne by U.S. embassies to organize and host congressional delegations, which often include not just aides but members' families, too.
These trips can serve valuable purposes -- boosting the morale of troops, promoting commercial opportunities for U.S. businesses, evaluating foreign-aid spending. They can foster bipartisanship by offering a chance for Democrats and Republicans to spend time together (though the most ideological members mostly opt to travel with their own kind.) In recent months, senior lawmakers have mounted emergency missions to soothe the nerves of allies alarmed by President Donald Trump's erratic foreign policy.
Despite the benefits, the weak oversight of congressional trips lends itself to abuse. Overseas travel by members and their staffs must be approved in advance by committee chairs. But under a law dating to the 1970s, Congress doesn't pay for its trips out of appropriated funds; instead, the government is obligated to pay for any and all congressional travel expenses, with almost no strings attached. Lawmakers thus have little incentive to limit what they spend.
Some of the costs are eye-popping. In 2016, lawmakers and their staffers booked at least 557 commercial flights costing $10,000 or more. Last November, a six-day trip to Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines by three staff members on the House Armed Services committee cost more than $105,000 in airfare alone. Earlier this year, two Senate staffers flew commercial to South Africa on behalf of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Transportation costs were $48,460.24.
The public deserves more transparency about what it's getting. Senators and their aides don’t even have to disclose dates of travel and the numbers of days spent in each country. They should, as their colleagues in the House do. All members should be limited to one staffer on foreign trips, a rule currently enforced only by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And it's more than reasonable that Congress establish and adhere to an annual budget for its international travel.
Americans give their elected representatives considerable discretion to travel widely and engage with the world. Congress needs to be careful not to abuse that privilege.
--Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman
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