Editorial: CODEL Disclosure

Posted April 20, 2010 at 6:33pm

Roll Call has always supported Congressional travel overseas and has consistently pushed back against critics of foreign “junkets.” We dislike the term. Overwhelmingly, Members travel to learn what’s going on in the world and how U.S. policy is working.

That said, there needs to be accountability for the cost of travel and a regular process for budgeting it. As matters now stand, none of this exists.

When a Congressional committee holds a field hearing in the United States or a Member and staff go to a conference or make a domestic inspection trip, the travel costs are paid for out of the annual budgets either of the committee or the Member’s office.

But as Roll Call reported last week, when a Congressional delegation travels overseas, accommodations are made by the State Department and billed to a government account that automatically refills itself and has no spending limit.

The Wall Street Journal estimated last month that lawmakers spent a total of 5,300 days visiting 130 foreign countries at taxpayer expense. Adding up reports in the Congressional Record, Roll Call estimated the costs for 2009 at $8.7 million for the House and $5 million for the Senate.

However, verifying the numbers either in Congressional or executive branch records proves to be impossible, as is gaining any information about the details of expenditures. Congressional Record reporting is woefully incomplete.

Paying CODEL costs is governed by a 1978 law that establishes a “permanent appropriation,” meaning that Congress does not have to approve spending for its own travel each year. And the program has no dollar limit.

If a delegation travels on a military airplane, the Defense Department pays the costs out of its own budget. The costs are not included in public disclosures.

When a CODEL uses commercial aircraft, the State Department pays travel costs and bills a “foreign currency” account at the Treasury Department. Neither State nor Treasury reports on the expenditures — and State refused to do so when queried.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some of the money — up to $250 a day in cash given to Members — is commonly used to cover the cost of spouses’ travel, to pay for gifts, or is just pocketed even though House and Senate rules require that unused funds be repaid. No records are kept on per diem expenses.

Congress needs to establish a regular appropriation for CODEL travel and reporting of all that is spent. This black hole needs some sunlight.