About a week and a half ago, The New York Times ran a story about congressional junkets that are paid for by private groups and companies. The thrust of the story was, appropriately, that regulations put in place to curb the practice contain numerous loopholes and are subject to evasion; still, it was clear that, compared to a few years ago, lawmakers are traveling less often on the dime of corporations, lobbyists, and other private interests.
As a deeply reported and very entertaining story on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal points out, though, that doesn’t mean that, on the whole, our elected officials are traveling less often—it means that taxpayers are now picking up the bill. Here’s how Journal reporters Brody Mullins and T.W. Farnam lay out the data:
Lawmakers take scores of overseas trips each year to visit military bases, meet foreign officials, attend conferences and see how U.S. funds are spent. Ever since a corruption scandal in 2005 led to restrictions on privately funded travel, legislators have been taking more trips paid for by the government.
The cost they reported for such travel abroad was $13 million in 2008, a 70% jump from 2005, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of travel records. Lawmakers don’t have to report the cost of domestic travel when the government pays. The $13 million didn’t include the expense of flying on Air Force planes, which lawmakers don’t have to disclose.
Over the 2005-08 period, the cost of legislators’ privately funded travel, both domestic and overseas, fell 70%, to $2.9 million, according to LegiStorm.com, a Web site that tracks it.
The real fun of the piece, though, is the detail uncovered by Mullins and Farnam, who apparently traveled to Edinburgh while 12 members of the House of Representatives—and many of their spouses, plus aides and “military liaisons”—were in town for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Here’s a taste:
In Edinburgh, the lawmakers stayed at the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa. With “state-of-the-art spa and leisure facilities including a rooftop indoor/outdoor pool,” says Frommer’s guidebook, “this hotel pretty much has it all.”
The group stayed in top-floor rooms overlooking the 12th-century Edinburgh Castle. The government rate for the rooms is at least $300 a night, according to the hotel. On top of that was the control room of three adjoining rooms stripped of beds. Lawmakers and aides say a control room is necessary to provide work space, meeting rooms and easy access to American-style food.
Two Air Force liaisons went to a wine and liquor store called Oddbins. With one aide reading from a shopping list for scotch, they bought three bottles of 12-year old Auchentoshon for $42 apiece and a bottle of 14-year old Clynelish for $52, according to the clerk who rang up their order. Mr. Tanner’s spokesman said the group reimbursed the military liaisons.
“Mr. Tanner,” it turns out, is Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a leader of the budget-watching Blue Dog Coalition with a ticker tracking the national debt on his Web site.
There’s lots more—including a good bit about how John Cornyn spent part of his time during a trip to Germany over the summer—at the link.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.