During the Christmas break last month we looked at the rather odd story of an air traveler who was bumped from her first class seat on a United Flight from Texas to Washington by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. The passenger in question was Jean-Marie Simon, and United claimed that she had mistakenly canceled her own flight using the app on her phone and then reassigned the newly open, first-row seat to Jackson Lee. The congresswoman initially blamed it on racism (of course), which was an odd charge considering that Simon is a human rights activist.
After a non-apology from the airline and an offer of a voucher in exchange for her troubles, Simon was still not satisfied with the treatment she had received. And now, according to her Twitter feed, she’s asked the Congressional Ethics Committee to look into the matter.
Since United didn't respond to my letters re treatment on flight #788, I've filed complaint with Office of Congressional Ethics. No case number, + according to OCE rules it cannot even disclose whether it will consider case, but I think it's important to keep this going forward. pic.twitter.com/eiqu9S8YJx
— Jean-Marie Simon (@JeanMarieSimon1) January 7, 2018
As Simon indicates, it’s uncertain if the committee will even take up the question, but it might be worth a look. If Jackson Lee actually did ask to bump someone and cooperated with United to take Simon’s seat, that’s probably not a criminal offense, but it certainly sounds unethical. But even if the version of the story being told by United is true, there are still questions to be raised. Did the Congresswoman originally book a coach flight and then pay for an upgrade or was it a courtesy move on the part of the airline? If the latter, that constitutes a “gift” with significant cash value. And if it was paid for, then the taxpayers shelled out a considerable amount of dough for Jackson Lee to have the best seat on the plane. Was that recorded in her expense report?
Of course, we still don’t seem to have gotten Washington to ban the practice of flying First Class on the taxpayer dime while most of the rest of us sweat it out in economy class. Our own Katie Pavlich tackled that question back in 2014 when there was a brief, bipartisan push to change the rules so that members of Congress would fly in coach like the rest of us unless they paid for the upgrade themselves. What a novel concept!
“As with all federal spending, Member’s Representational Allowance funds are taxpayer dollars. As such, the use of these funds must be exercised with the utmost efficiency and transparency. A loophole currently exists that allows members of Congress to fly first-class at the expense of the taxpayer. Members of Congress are servants of the people and should not be considered a privileged class. Luxury airfare accommodations utilizing taxpayer monies would seem inappropriate in any fiscal climate but at a time of soaring deficits and with a federal debt in excess of $17 trillion such expenditures are especially wasteful,” the request states. “If federal restrictions prohibit members of our military from traveling first-class, this same standard should also apply to Members of Congress.”
So how did that work out? The Hill revisited the issue in 2015 and found that not much had changed. In fact, according to another report, the following year U.S. taxpayers paid for 557 first class overseas tickets which cost a minimum of $10,000 each for members and even their staff. All such overseas business travel is approved by the State Department and comes out of their budget, so there’s little incentive for the members to curb those costs.
If Ms. Simon is able to get the Ethics Committee to look into Jackson Lee over this matter, perhaps they could check out those other flights as well. After all, we’re paying for them.