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Travel Disclosure Rules Panned

Congressional reports on foreign travel are essentially useless for determining where Members went, how much was spent and who traveled with the lawmakers, the Congressional Research Service has concluded.

Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.), who requested the CRS study earlier this year, released the report Friday in conjunction with a new bill that he has introduced to expand reporting requirements for official foreign travel and to require Congress to appropriate the budget to cover its foreign trips.

The CRS concluded that it is difficult to assemble any meaningful data on Congressional foreign travel. Congressional reports of foreign travel are filled with inaccuracies, inconsistent reporting standards and plain mathematical errors, the CRS found. As a result “it would appear that the explanatory capacity of current disclosure requirements may be of limited assistance to explain the purposes, benefits, destinations, and costs of Congressional international travel.”

As Roll Call reported earlier this year, Congressional travel is funded out of accounts in the U.S. Treasury that refill themselves, with no spending limit and no specific appropriation required by Congress.

Roll Call has also reported that disclosures published in the Congressional Record have understated by tens of millions of dollars the actual expenditures from those accounts to cover the costs of travel for Members and staff.

In addition, the CRS explained, “There is no single source that identifies all international travel undertaken by the House or Senate, and no means to identify the number of trips taken, destinations visited, travelers, total costs, or costs paid for by funds appropriated to government entities other than Congress.”

The CRS report noted that Members generally travel using foreign currency set aside by the Treasury, but there are also other forms of travel, such as
government-sponsored travel and private travel, that are not included in the same disclosure reports.

Some foreign trips are never reported at all, the CRS found. For example, there is no indication in any House or Senate foreign travel report since 1993 that any Member traveled to the Vatican, even though several dozen Members went there for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005.

Nevertheless, the CRS did provide Johnson with a detailed accounting of the amounts that the House and Senate reported spending on foreign travel, concluding that the cost of Congressional overseas travel rose from about $2.8 million in 1994 to about $13.7 million in 2009.

The Treasury Department reported the actual cost of Congressional travel from the foreign currency accounts for 2009 was $17.6 million. None of these totals includes the cost of aircraft provided by the Defense Department.

Johnson introduced a bill last week that would require Members to publicly disclose their travel plans in advance of any foreign trip, as well as a post-travel report indicating the actual itinerary for the trip. Johnson’s bill would also require Congress to directly appropriate funds for its own foreign travel.

Johnson told Roll Call that “an overwhelming portion of foreign travel is not only unnecessary,” it is essentially recreational and considered “simply a perk of the job” by Members. But it is impossible to tell which trips are worthwhile and which are not because there is “a deliberate wall of impenetrability in terms of ascertaining — even for a Member of Congress — what trips were taken, how much they cost, what the incidentals were.”

Johnson said his goal is not to eliminate foreign travel, but to “reduce it, make it more accountable and give the American people more confidence” that the trips being taken are worthwhile.

Johnson wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi twice in July asking her to release information about all Congressional delegations that she approved for the July Fourth and August recess periods. The California Democrat has not replied, Johnson said.

A House leadership aide said committees are largely responsible for their own disclosure, and the primary purpose of the disclosure system is to report “what Members themselves have spent” on foreign travel, not what other agencies may have spent to support those trips.

This source said Members are generally encouraged to issue press releases about their trips or otherwise disclose as much as possible about their travel, though “obviously, you can’t give out details of trips before they go for security reasons.”

Pelosi did institute new travel policies earlier this year, including new restrictions on Members flying business class, limits on family members joining Congressional delegations and a strict reminder that any excess per diem money not needed to cover food and lodging expenses must be returned to the Treasury.