Taxpayers Fund A First-Class Congressional Foreign Travel Boom

(USA TODAY) Most taxpayers will never pay $10,000 in flights for an overseas trip, but in the year prior to the 2016 election, taxpayers paid for 557 such trips that each cost more than $10,000 for a member of Congress or a staffer.

Those five-digit global itineraries made up 40% of all individual congressional trips for which travel costs were publicly reported. By comparison, less than 0.2% of tickets purchased by the general public through U.S. travel agencies in 2015 and 2016 were more than $10,000, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.

The pricey flights were part of a surge in foreign travel. Congress spent at least $14.7 million on taxpayer-funded trips in fiscal year 2016, a 24% increase over the year before, according to Congress’ own accounting.

And that may be a low estimate. The Treasury Department reported that congressional travel cost nearly $20 million last year, the highest figure ever recorded, based on data provided by the State Department, which arranges official foreign travel for lawmakers. Neither Treasury nor State would explain the discrepancy, but both agencies stood by the higher figure.

None of these totals include hundreds of other trips for which the military provides transportation; the costs of using those military aircraft are never disclosed.

Lawmakers make official trips abroad to confer with foreign officials, to visit U.S. military operations and to oversee projects funded by the U.S. government, among other things.

Congress does not pay for its own flights. Under a Korean War-era statute that was updated in the 1970s, the Treasury Department is directed to pay for congressional trips overseas from whatever funds it has available. Congress does not have to approve spending for its foreign travel each year, and there is no set dollar limit.

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