After getting a hailstorm of criticism for its plans to buy more private jets for its own members, Congress has moved to dump the new Gulfstream orders it included in the 2010 budget bill. However, as John Fund reports for the Wall Street Journal, that actually was the milder travel scandal to come out of this session. Travel junkets have become wildly popular with members of Congress not just for the lure of travel, but because taxpayers provide these politicians with hefty per diems while traveling. Some lawmakers can pocket up to $3,000 a trip in cash, thanks to a system that doesn’t require itemization and rarely demands refunds of unused cash:
The total cost for congressional overseas travel is never made public because the price tag for State Department advance teams and military planes used by lawmakers are folded into much larger budgets. Members of Congress must only report the total per diem reimbursements they receive in cash for hotels, meals and local transport.
They don’t have to itemize expenses—a convenient arrangement since most costs are covered by the government or local hosts. Some trips subtract some hotel and meal costs from the per diems, others do not. “The policy is completely inconsistent,” one House member told me. Total per diem allowances (per person, including staff) can top $3,000 for a single trip. Unused funds are supposed to be given back to the government, but congressional records show that rarely happens. …
The House’s official handbook requires that lawmakers use regular U.S. airlines “whenever possible, unless such service is not reasonably available.” But congressional records show members routinely take military planes to London, Paris and other well-served locales. Members can fly for free with their spouses on military aircraft.
Guess who is the worst offender of the latter?
You’d think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be wise to the poor symbolism of a jet-setting Congress. But she’s part of the problem. No one objects to her ability to fly on a government jet from time to time. But last March the watchdog group Judicial Watch obtained embarrassing internal Pentagon correspondence: “Any chance of politely querying [Pelosi’s team] if they really intend to do all of these or are they just picking every weekend?” one such email read. “[T]here’s no need to block every weekend ‘just in case.’”
Other emails show intermediaries for Mrs. Pelosi frustrated when told transportation demands couldn’t be met. “It is my understanding there are no [Gulfstream] 5’s available for the House during the Memorial Day recess. This is totally unacceptable . . . The speaker will want to know where the planes are,” wrote aide Kay King. In a separate email, when told a certain type of aircraft wouldn’t be available, Ms. King wrote, “This is not good news, and we will have some very disappointed folks, as well as a very upset Speaker.” A Pelosi spokesman said the Judicial Watch report seemed to be based on “a few emails.”
Yeah. And Watergate was based on a few tapes, Nancy.
No wonder Arlen Specter griped about not getting a bonus for meeting with his constituents. He could have been jet-setting to the Caymans on a fact-finding mission on financial markets, while generating a good chunk of per diem cash to stuff into a bank there. Instead, he had to fly first class back to Pennsylvania to have his constituents yell at him while not getting a couple of thou in cash.
Time to kick out the crooks again, and this time elect people who will put in place an expense-report system that accounts for the cash spent on junkets. I suspect they’ll become a lot less popular when members of Congress can’t suck money out of the taxpayer and into their personal bank accounts.