Congressional “Free” Travel Not Free to Taxpayers

How many taxpayers would love to have a bank account that “automatically refills itself and has no spending limit attached,” as Congress does?

See this Paul Singer article in the April 13 Roll Call:

Members of Congress and their staff racked up almost $15 million worth of foreign travel in 2009, but Congress didn’t have to pay the tab.

Under a Korean War-era law governing Congressional foreign travel, Congress doesn’t pay for its own trips abroad, and there is no apparent limit on what the government can spend for Members’ hotels, taxicabs and room service.

When a Congressional committee holds a field hearing in Wisconsin or a Member of Congress flies to a conference in Arkansas with a few staff members, those travel costs are paid for out of the annual budgets of either the committee’s or the Member’s office.

But when a Congressional delegation travels overseas, the accommodations are made by the State Department and billed back to a government account that automatically refills itself and has no spending limit attached.

The travel account dates back to a 1950s law that allowed the U.S. government to hold excess “foreign currency” in accounts around the world and use those balances to pay on-the-ground expenses of visiting Congressional delegations.

For years, the Treasury Department used revenues from sales of grain abroad or the income from foreign assistance loans to pay for Congressional travel, but in 1977 the U.S. comptroller general ruled that practice out of bounds.

So Congress amended the provision in 1978 to establish that “whenever local currencies owned by the United States are not otherwise available” to pay for local travel costs, “the Treasury shall purchase such local currencies as may be necessary for such purposes, using any funds in the treasury not otherwise appropriated.”

Translation: The government can use whatever funds it has lying around to pay the travel costs of Congressional delegations overseas.

This language creates two conditions that are rare in federal budgeting. First, it establishes a “permanent appropriation,” meaning Congress does not have to approve spending for its own travel each year, as it does for other Congressional budget items such as office supplies and salaries. Second, the program has no dollar limit…

Lots more here.

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