Under Fire: Congressional Perks

New rules strip some costly congressional perks.

May 14, 2010— -- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has imposed new rules, announced Friday, cracking down on one of the costliest perks for members of Congress and their staffs: luxury international travel.

Under the new rules for international Congressional travel, taxpayers won't be billed for business or first class airfare, unless the flights are more than 14 hours long.

This ends a widespread practice ABC News exposed last month involving both parties. One House staffer named Harlan Watson racked up $76,000 in taxpayer funded travel for work on climate change issues in just nine months last year, most of it business-class airfare to Europe.

When ABC News attempted to ask Mr. Watson's boss, Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, about it, he turned his back to our cameras and walked away.

Cheaper Tickets

In one two-week period, taxpayers spent more than $20,000 for Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon to travel to London and Italy for meetings on natural resource management issues. His roundtrip ticket to London alone cost $9,950.

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

In a quick Internet search ABC News easily found much cheaper flights to Europe, including Washington to London flights for as low as $700.

Even More Perks

On international trips, members are also given cash for food and incidentals of up to $200 a day. Until now, they could spend it any way they wanted.

Under Speaker Pelosi's new rules, unspent expense money must be returned, although there's still a loophole: no receipts are required.

Still, limitations on the costs of flights apply only to commercial travel, not the more costly trips members of Congress and their staffs take on military aircraft.

And none of the new rules apply to the Senate, where members and staff can still fly in style.