Sending members of the U.S. House of Representatives on trips around the globe has cost the federal treasury more than $3.6 million since the beginning of 2011 — and what’s reported is only a fraction of the total cost, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
In fact, while facing down budget sequestration, members of Congress reported spending more on foreign travel in 2012 than in 2011, congressional records show.
Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation went to places such as France, Italy and Germany on private military airplanes in recent years. Former local lawmakers such as Jean Schmidt, R-Loveland, and Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek, visited 20 countries combined even after losing their party primaries or dropping out of the race for re-election last year.
But the Daily News found that available government records provide only a glimpse of how much all of this has cost taxpayers.
Many of these trips raise eyebrows, according to Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, who said lawmakers owe taxpayers more of an explanation.
“I don’t think anybody is going to accuse a lawmaker of getting a free vacation on the taxpayer dime if they’re going to Afghanistan,” Ellis said. “But if you’re going to the Paris Air Show, as they do every year, then you start questioning, ‘What is your itinerary, what are you doing there?’ ”
Other questionable trips include jaunts to popular tourist destinations — and non-strategic allies — such as Italy, Ireland, Monaco and Malta.
In Ohio’s congressional delegation, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, was the most frequent flier (28 foreign stops reported), followed by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton (24).
The trips are called foreign congressional delegations, or CODELs, but critics have long derided them as junkets. Amid sequestration, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., urged cutting down on CODELs and said he wouldn’t allow trips on military aircraft.
“The Speaker believes it is the prudent and responsible course of action, and it goes above and beyond the spending cuts the House has implemented to comply with the president’s sequester,” said Boehner spokeswoman Brittany Bramell on directing lawmakers to fly commercial.
Watchers of the public purse wonder if Congress is waking up to the perception that these trips aren’t always necessary.
“Nothing is more tone deaf than having a travel budget shoot up at times when government agencies are having to furlough workers and cutting programs,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. “I think it sends the wrong message.”
Allison said there are lots of legitimate reasons for lawmakers to fly abroad. But, he said, taxpayers deserve an explanation as to why they’re going and who they’re taking with them, including spouses or campaign donors.
‘A farewell tour’
Schmidt defended the trips she took after losing the Republican primary to Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Cincinnati last March.
“I only did trips that were justifiable in that we worked the entire time,” she said. “They were hardly fluff-and-bluff trips. We were lucky to have four hours of sleep a day. You worked all the time.”
She defended her swing through eastern Europe, saying the area includes democracies emerging from Soviet dominance and that she was tasked with asking questions both on behalf of the State Department and her role on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“You’re still working until the day that you leave (Congress),” she said.
Wenstrup had not reported any trips into the Congressional Record by press time, but his office says he took a CODEL to Guantanamo Bay in April. He declined to comment for this story.
Austria did not return a call seeking comment about the trips he took after announcing he would not run for re-election when his district was merged into surrounding ones as part of congressoinal redistricting.
Ellis thinks outgoing lawmakers should be banned from taking foreign trips.
”It’s sort of a farewell tour,” he said. “Part of the reason why lawmakers travel is to inform them so they can be better lawmakers. (If they’re leaving) they shouldn’t be allowed to travel. I think it should be shut off.”
To write this story, the Daily News created a database of trips reported by lawmakers into the Congressional Record, which is required by federal law.
These reports are late and limited. The reports often are filed months after the travel and leave out much of the actual costs of each trip. They also don’t state whether a lawmaker’s spouse tagged along, which is permitted.
“There’s a reason why this stuff doesn’t get disclosed and they’re not transparent — it’s because they don’t want people looking over their shoulder, they don’t want their constituents looking over their shoulder,” said Ellis of Taxpayers for Common sense.
The largest expense that’s left out is the cost of military flights, provided by a fleet of military VIP jets run out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and estimated to cost up to $10,000 per hour to operate.
Members of Congress cited military travel as the reason no travel costs were reported more than 1,000 times in the reports reviewed by this newspaper.
Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., recently said he will not allow CODELs to use military planes, though it’s up to the Department of Defense whether to allow lawmakers to travel on military flights to war zones.
Boehner himself took a military flight to Belgium in 2011 and visited Brazil, Colombia and Mexico in January 2012. The last trip was part of a seven-member bipartisan delegation to the top three U.S. export markets in Latin America that included meetings with the presidents of Colombia and Panama.
Turner has taken military aircraft to Belgium, the Czech Republic and Germany in recent years. Schmidt took a military flight to Spain on her way back from a tour through eastern Europe.
Chabot frequent flier
Chabot led the Ohio delegation in foreign travel with more than a half dozen trips making 28 stops in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. He was the fourth-most traveled member of Congress.
This includes four stops that took place when he was in Congress in 2007 and 2008, but not reported until 2011 because of a “clerical oversight” by the chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee.
Chabot, who did not return calls seeking comment, recently took trips to Australia and New Zealand that haven’t been reported.
He did issue a statement: “As a subcommittee chairman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I focus on oversight of the roughly $50 billion the U.S. State Department spends each year. Because a significant portion of that money is spent overseas, both in the form of embassy operations and foreign aid, proper oversight requires traveling to the areas under my subcommittee’s jurisdiction and meeting with people on the ground, both U.S. personnel and representatives of foreign governments, to see firsthand how our tax dollars are being spent.”
Chabot was chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia during the onset of the “Arab Spring,” his office points out, which required numerous hearings on how the U.S. should respond. He visited with Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya about a month before the attacks in Benghazi that claimed the lives of Stevens and three other Americans.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen far too clearly in the aftermath of the attacks in Benghazi, we cannot simply accept the administration’s word when it comes to operations in foreign nations,” Chabot’s statement said. “Instead, Congress must perform its own due diligence in these areas.”
Chabot said State Department officials tell members of Congress that visits to international capitols enhance diplomacy. He said since 2011 he has flown commercial unless flying into a war zone, and his trips are business focused and do not includes spouses.
Turner and Jordan
Turner’s 24 stops in the past two years were all in Europe, including trips to England, Germany, France, Italy, Greece and five trips to Belgium.
His most recent reported trip was a jaunt in May to Luxembourg that cost at least $28,135 for the four congressmen and three staffers who attended.
Before Boehner’s new rule, Turner flew frequently on military aircraft, even when visiting eastern Europe, Germany or Belgium.
Officials from Turner’s office note that the Dayton lawmaker chairs a subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, and is chairman of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, based in Belgium.
“Most of the Congresman’s trips with the House Armed Service Committee allow him to visit our allies’ classified nuclear and strategic defense installations,” said Turner spokesman Preston Gresham.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, took no CODELs in the two years analyzed. But he was not critical of them.
“Often, members need a first-hand account in order to do their jobs well in Washington. Given the committees that Rep. Jordan serves on, our office had limited need to do so,” said a statement from his office.
CODELs have to be approved by committee chairs and must have members of both parties on all trips.
$600/day per diem
One of the first trips reported after lawmakers had to start using and listing the cost of flying commercial was the delegation to the Vatican to attend the swearing-in of Pope Francis.
Boehner, a Catholic, was invited on this trip but said he was too busy with his duties on Capitol Hill to attend.
The 16-person delegation, including eight members of Congress coming from both parties, each spent $2,048 in public funds to fly there.
The full reported cost of the trip was more than $60,000, including per diem lodging and meal expenses of up to $2,140.
Per diem is another taxpayer expense listed on travel forms. It varies based on the destination, with Italy being one of the pricier locales to visit. Congressmembers who went there for a four-day trip in June 2011 were given $600 per day.
Members of Congress have spent well in excess of $1 million on per diem costs since the beginning of 2011, this newspaper found, though an exact number is elusive because of inconsistent reporting.
Lawmakers don’t have to keep receipts or report how they spend this money. In fact, in 2010 a Wall Street Journal investigation found they routinely pocketed leftover cash or spent it on gifts, shopping or to cover their spouses’ travel expenses.
The Office of Congressional Ethics clarified that unused per diem must be returned. But Congressional records show per diem rarely being reimbursed. Those using per diem are not required to track their expenses, so there’s no way of verifying whether money was pocketed improperly.
CODELs are just one kind of travel taken by members of Congress, and their costs are grossly underreported.
Lawmakers and their staffs also routinely accept trips from third parties, which have to be reported. Turner, for example, spent six days in China in January on the dime of the National Committee on US-China Relations.
The nonprofit spent more than $7,000 on the trip for each of the five members of Congress and others who attended. It included meetings with Chinese government and business leaders and visits to Chinese landmarks such as the Great Hall of the People.
Members of the U.S. Senate also take foreign trips, though they are not as detailed and more difficult to analyze than House reports.
A Daily News analysis found the Senate has spent nearly $3.4 million on foreign trips for senators and their staffs so far this year, including a trip by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to Cuba and Haiti that cost $11,512.
House and Senate trips are paid for from a bottomless fund maintained by the U.S. Treasury and managed by the State Deparment. In addition to direct costs reported in the Congressional Record, millions more are billed to this account for things such as staff hours and embassy costs by the State Department.
The Daily News was unable to determine the total cost of this Treasury fund, but a story by the news outlet Roll Call in 2010 found that from 2001 through 2009 trips for lawmakers and their staffs cost up to $40 million more than what was reported in the Congressional Record.
“Taxpayer dollars should be treated as precious resources and not squandered by members of Congress. That’s why we need a close eye on what’s being spent and the purpose of these trips,” Allison said. “I think there’s some question as to a lot of these trips.”
Staff writer Kara Driscoll contributed to this report.