High Class or 'Voter Class'? How Congress Travels on Your Dime

ABC News finds that congress' travel expenses go largely unchecked.

April 21, 2010, 6:15 PM

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2010— -- For most business travelers, hitting the road on the company dime comes with strict limits on spending and the need to keep receipts. But when the travelers are members of Congress or their staffers -- and taxpayers are footing the bill -- it appears sky's the limit on just what goes.

While international travel can be an important part of the job, congressional workers often spent surprisingly large sums of money on official trips, sometimes much more than needed, an ABC News investigation into congressional travel records has found.

One congressional staffer spent more than $76,000 taxpayer dollars in the last nine months alone, traveling to Europe and Asia.

Records show he spent nearly $9,000 on a single roundtrip ticket to Barcelona and at least $4,000 on food and accommodations for the week he was there; three trips to Germany for more than $30,000; and more than $20,000 for 15 days in Copenhagen, where he attended the summit on climate change.

Who is this international man of mystery?

His name is Harlan Watson, a Republican staffer on the House Climate Change Committee, and he is just one of the many Capitol Hill employees who routinely enjoy business class travel and posh, five-star hotels at taxpayer expense.

Watson was not available for comment, although his boss, Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner commented that Watson's travel "was all approved by [Democratic] Chairman [Rep. Edward] Markey."

"Mr. Watson is a minority employee, but the minority does not approve travel, so talk to Chairman Markey," Rep. Sensenbrenner said, referring to his status as a member of the Republican minority on the committee.

A spokesman for Rep. Markey, the Democratic chairman committee, told ABC News, "[Watson] doesn't work for us, he's a Republican."

Watson is just one of many staffers and members of Congress who have spent thousands of taxpayer dollars traveling around the world, according to the Congressional record, and the funds they spend go largely unaccounted for.

At the start of the trips, congressional employees get paid up to $200 cash for "food and incidentals" for each day they're on the road. However, whatever is not spent, they keep. No receipts are kept or submitted to track actual expenses.

"They can spend it on gifts. They can take it home and invest it. They can do whatever," former Republican Rep. Tom Davis confirmed.

One senator even tried to return his unspent money and was told he could not.

Senate Spends Nearly $500,000 on Two Senators in Copenhagen

In another recent trip, the Senate spent nearly $500,000 sending a 40-member delegation to the climate change summit in Copenhagen that included only two senators. One -- Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla. -- was on the ground for only a few hours, but spent more than $8,000 on airfare alone.

And Nancy Pelosi led a delegation to Copenhagen with more than 60 people, including 23 members of the House, to the tune of $553,000 -- a price tag that does not include the cost of the military jets used to transport those who did not fly on commercial airlines.

"I think the rule is you travel business class if you go abroad, as oppose to sitting back in, you know, what we call voter class," Davis told ABC News.

In a two-week period, Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon spent more than $20,000 on trips to London and Italy. His roundtrip ticket to London alone cost $9,950.

Gordon told ABC News he attended important meetings on national resources issues and that his airfare was booked by the Congressional travel office.

"You know, by the way, I'm a taxpayer too. If you can find cheaper tickets let me know," Gordon said.

A quick ABC News search on popular online travel websites for flights from Washington to London turned up many costing far less than $10,000. Roundtrip flights priced $700 and $730 were more common, and even many business class tickets were found priced at half of what Gordon paid for his ticket.

Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he wouldn't mind if staffers and congressmen had to book their own travel through a Web site that compares airline prices.

"Maybe you could get the other people who book the trips to see if they can book a delegation through Expedia or something. It's ok with me," Kucinich said.

Still, there's no incentive for members of Congress or their staffers to book cheap flights.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call recently revealed that Congress doesn't pay for its own trips: the money comes from a limitless account at the Treasury Department set up to hold foreign currency reserves.

Last year Congress spent $15 million on official travel.

ABC News' Sarah Herndon contributed to this report.

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