Congress Travels Free on Taxpayers' Dime
U.S. Air Force Flies Bipartisan Congressional Group to Europe to 'Build Relationships'
By JONATHAN KARL
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2009
There's been no shortage of outrage in Congress about CEOs and their corporate jets, but members of Congress know something about luxury travel, too.
Congressmen regularly travel the world on the taxpayers' dime -- as members of so-called congressional delegations, or "CoDels."
A bipartisan group of members of Congress and their spouses went on an official trip to Europe this week, traveling through Brussels, Vienna, Paris -- where they spent Valentine's Day -- and the Bavarian Alps.
As is the case with almost all of these congressional trips, they were able to avoid annoying airport lines, frustrating flight delays and baggage nightmares, because they were flown at no cost to them by the Air Force. Commercial airfare for a comparable trip across Europe would cost roughly $10,000 per person. A good deal on a private charter flight for a trip like this would be at least $200,000.
ABC News caught up with Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., who is leading the delegation, shortly before he left for the trip. Tanner strongly defended the group's travels, saying he has important meetings at each stop and the trip is part of a greater effort to improve relations with Europe.
"I will give you our schedule. There is not a lot of downtime in our schedule, I can tell you that," he said. "We are going to Brussels. That is where NATO headquarters are. We are going to Vienna because I as NATO president am speaking to the OSCE, another organization we are trying to build a relationship with to help us in the war on terrorism."
Tanner led another delegation on a similar trip in November for NATO and other meetings in Rome and Florence, Italy, and Valencia, Spain.
"We need to build relationships," Tanner told ABC News. "I would rather personally go home and see my grandchildren. It takes a lot of time and effort to go over there during every break."
Tanner also defended the practice of bringing spouses on the congressional trip.
"NATO parliamentarians in Europe have wives. Our wives go to embassies in these countries we visit..." he said. "Whether it is going to schools, orphanages, libraries, whatever that is what our wives do ... there is no extra expense."
Tanner isn't the only frequent flier in Congress. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., has taken four taxpayer-financed trips to nine countries over the past four years, despite criticizing corporate executives for flying on private jets to Washington and asking for taxpayer handouts.
"They had a political tin ear coming to Washington looking for a handout by flying three separate corporate jets," he told ABC News. "It just seemed kind of ridiculous for the mission they supposedly were on, pleading poverty."
According to congressional records, over the past year, Ackerman has traveled on congressional trips to Iraq and Afghanistan -- but to more exotic destinations as well, including Italy, Slovenia and England.
Congressional records show that in February 2008, Ackerman took a three-day trip to England, flying first class on a commercial flight for $14,000. Ackerman told ABC News that he "represented the United States Congress" during his trip.
When asked about spending $14,000 on the flight, the congressman said, "Whatever the airline costs -- I don't book the flights. This is not what you are trying to make it look like -- living the romantic, posh life of luxury."
The cost of military travel is a tightly guarded secret. Congress and the Pentagon would not comment on the cost of congressional travel, but it is many times more expensive than flying commercial.
The congressional record lists pages upon pages of trips, including one taken by eight congressmen and three staffers to Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica. No one would comment on the cost of the air travel, but a private charter plane on a trip like that would cost approximately $500,000.
Members of Congress may say it's a trip to foster relationships, but it's also a great photo and a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- paid for with taxpayer money.