House members spent $1.5 million on trips abroad in 2012


Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 5:30 p.m.

As the nation hurtled from one fiscal crisis to the next last year, Democrats and Republicans argued bitterly over the best solution — tax increases or spending cuts. But members of the U.S. House did agree on one thing: There was enough money for them to travel the globe at taxpayers' expense.

At least 172 House members — 14 from Florida — spent more than $1.5 million in 2012, visiting more than 90 countries and every continent but Antarctica, an investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune has found.

In all, House members spent more on 864 international stops last year than in either of the two previous years, congressional records show.

And the actual costs are much higher than Congress reported.

U.S. House members' trip reports do not include costs for flights by often-used military transports, which run more than $10,000 per hour. Instead, only commercial flight expenses are documented.

The reports also do not detail expenses for spouses, who often accompany congressional members on trips at taxpayers' expense.

Nearly 20 percent of the recorded travel costs last year — $260,000 — were incurred by 20 House members no longer in Congress. Most of those members traveled after announcing they were retiring, lost re-election bids or declared they wouldn't seek office again.

House members typically defend travel as a necessary part of their jobs, especially on defense, foreign affairs, intelligence or emerging trade zones.

But the investigation found that in 2012, France, Ireland and Spain were among the five most frequently reported destinations for House members. Seventy-three members visited one of those countries, while just 35 made stops in Afghanistan.

And no House member reported visiting Iraq.

Other destinations included the Mediterranean island of Malta; Monaco, a city-state on the French Riviera; and the East African tourism hubs of Tanzania and Madagascar.

“If you think there are members abusing it — there are,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican who says he only travels when it's relevant to the committees on which he serves.

The investigation showed that:

Former Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., was the most traveled, spending 58 days overseas visiting at least 18 countries at a minimum cost of $67,000 to taxpayers.

A month after returning from Monaco, Democrat Dennis Cardoza, also of California — who announced in 2011 he was leaving Congress — spent seven days in Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, then abruptly quit the House three days after returning to the U.S.

More than half of Florida's 25-member delegation traveled overseas, accounting for more of Congress' travelers than those from every other state but Texas and California. (The latter states had 18 and 23 travelers, respectively.)

Twelve states had no House members travel overseas, including Arizona, Nevada and Connecticut.

California Republican Dana Rohrabacher billed the government for the single most expensive trip, a seven-day excursion to Germany in January 2012 that cost taxpayers $38,382.

Ocala Republican Cliff Stearns went to Denmark and France in June before losing in a primary upset last August.

The amount spent on Congress' international travel is not a vast sum, given the $3.8 trillion federal budget. But the spending appears to contradict pleas for fiscal restraint by congressmen, who have an approval rate of just 16 percent from voters, according to a May 9 Gallup poll.

Even some House members say the travel has gotten out of hand in a time of deep cutbacks.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., reintroduced a bill early this year to limit foreign travel to only the most critical needs.

“I know too many times they are taking trips to European counties or Southeast Asia where we don't even have troops,” said Jones, who made no international trips at taxpayers' expense last year.

As with other bills aimed at restricting travel or increasing disclosure, Jones' legislation has gone nowhere.

Tracking congressional travel remains notoriously difficult. House records often include general numbers and are typically filed months after the trips. They do not disclose when spouses go along, or what costs are incurred by the Defense Department for ferrying House members on more than 300 VIP planes.

And they don't detail what, if anything, was gained during a given trip.

The investigation did not include travel by members of the U.S. Senate, which provides less detailed and accessible disclosure online than the House.

House leaders are showing more sensitivity to international travel. House Speaker John Boehner, following budget fights with President Barack Obama, told members he would not approve international trips using military transports.

The result is more commercial airfare costs in 2013. When nine members of the House and seven staffers flew to Vatican City in March for the new pope's Installation Mass, they reported spending $32,768 in commercial airfare costs.

Since January, dozens of members have traveled to locations including Switzerland, Belgium, the U.K., Germany, Israel and Afghanistan.

The travelers this year have included Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, who visited 14 counties in 20 days over three weeks, primarily Southeast Asia and Africa.

Few trips raise more questions of value to taxpayers than those made by departing members of Congress.

The Herald-Tribune found that the most prolific traveler last year was Dreier, the former California representative. He announced in February 2012 that he would not seek re-election after California's redistricting process essentially eliminated his district.

Following the announcement, Dreier, who chaired the Rules Committee, took seven trips to at least 18 countries over 58 days.

As a committee chairman, Dreier could travel without seeking approval from anyone else in Congress.

Dreier, who served in Congress for 32 years, made his final trip in October, a nine-day excursion to Africa, according to a report filed with Congress one month after he was officially retired.

The Congressional Record does not specify where he went in Africa, but he billed taxpayers for $6,441 in transportation costs.

Second in the number of days traveled was Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, who was at the time a ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Smith, now chairman of that committee, took seven trips over at least 37 days in 2012.

The trip by California's Cardoza last July to Monaco cost taxpayers at least $3,600. After returning from his final trip to Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, he resigned in August to take a job as a lawyer for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP in Washington, D.C.

Cardoza also did not return calls seeking comment.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana, announced his retirement in January 2012 after 30 years in Congress. He then traveled to 14 countries during four trips taken from February to September. Burton, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made his last trip in September to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. He reported spending $10,033 on commercial flights for the five-day trip.

One month after he left Congress in January 2013, Burton was named chairman of the Azerbaijan American Alliance board. That group is a U.S.-based nonprofit that says in its mission statement it aims to promote understanding between the two nations.

In all, 14 members of Congress announced their retirement, resigned or ran for another office in 2012, yet traveled at a cost of at least $230,000 to taxpayers, according to the Congressional Record.

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