Editorial: Frequent fliers
Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 2:41 p.m.
If the American public needed more reasons to distrust Congress, Jeremy Wallace has provided 864 of them.
That's the number of foreign trips that U.S. House members took last year at taxpayers' expense, as detailed Sunday in a story by Wallace, a political writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Wallace found that at least 172 House members made international jaunts in 2012. Among them were 14 Florida members, including two representing this region — Democrat Corrine Brown and Republican Cliff Stearns, the latter of whom was defeated last year in a primary upset.
The investigation revealed that congressional travel is loosely controlled and, perhaps by design, exceedingly difficult to track. It points out the need for more travel restrictions and better accountability for the trips taken.
The House's international travel cost more than $1.5 million last year. How much more isn't clear, because members of Congress frequently fly in military transports, which cost more than $10,000 an hour to operate. Only commercial flight expenses are documented.
The records don't cite expenses for spouses, who often accompany members of Congress — also at taxpayer expense.
By far the most outrageous aspect of the findings is that almost 20 percent of the recorded travel expenses last year — $260,000 — were incurred by 20 members who are no longer in Congress. Most traveled after announcing they were retiring, had lost re-election bids or declared they wouldn't run again.
Stearns went to Denmark and France in June before his primary defeat.
Members of Congress typically defend their travel as necessary fact-finding missions. Some trips no doubt provide valuable expertise. And the overall cost of the travel — even if you figure in what the Defense Department spends to transport representatives on more than 300 VIP planes — is not great when compared with the federal budget.
But at a time when many in Congress demand budget cuts and others argue for tax increases, the image of globe-trotting House members is unseemly at best.
Many of the trips were not to world trouble spots but to vacation locales like Spain, France, Ireland and Germany. And far less than half of the House's 435 members found it necessary to travel at all.
The report shows the need for better controls — either through legislation or by House and Senate leaders' directives — on congressional travel.
Travel reports should be clear and made easily available to the media and public as soon as possible.
All travel by House members and chairs should be approved by the speaker, with the reasons for the trips and estimated costs made public beforehand. No travel should be approved for any member who is on the verge of leaving office. Spouses' travel costs should be paid by the members, not taxpayers.
A May 9 Gallup poll found that voters gave the members of Congress an approval rating of just 16 percent. Limiting their international travel, and providing a better accounting of trips that are truly necessary, could do their image a world of good.