The U.S. Navy once enticed new recruits with the slogan "Join the Navy, see the world." Today, federal civilian employees enjoy the same perk without having to endure the rigors of boot camp or cramped shipboard accommodations.
To the contrary, taxpayers spent $2.8 billion in 2009 just on hotel rooms for federal employees, an amount that ensured bureaucrats would always go to sleep with a mint on the pillow. In limited circumstances, employees can even qualify to stay in luxurious five-star hotels. When these expenses are combined with airfare, meals and pocket money given to federal employees, the total cost to taxpayers was $13.1 billion.
Of course, some government travel is necessary. The problem is that the system does nothing to prevent taxpayers from being ripped off to bankroll trips that double as vacation junkets. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, frequently sent employees overseas on first- or business-class airplane tickets that cost taxpayers up to $10,000 each. It's unclear how much travel of this sort is unnecessary because the agency "does not maintain data on premium travel in a format that allows it to readily identify the population of premium travelers and note patterns and trends that may be indicative of abusive travel," according to a 2008 report by the SEC's inspector general.
Likewise, agencies spend millions sending employees to private industry trade shows that just happen to be in resort locations such as Las Vegas. The Department of Commerce spent $7.5 million on conferences of this sort in 2007. Because businessmen want to have a good time, these events are designed to be enjoyable. So who decides which federal employees get to live it up and attend with our money?
At the Environmental Protection Agency, apparently each bureaucrat can decide for himself. Earlier this month, EPA's IG audited agency travel records and found that midlevel staffers approved one out of five trips even though they lacked explicit authority to do so. Employees faced with supervisors who rejected travel requests could manipulate the electronic system to, in effect, approve their own travel. Because the agency's leadership did not bother to review travel spending, the requests were processed automatically.
This is not surprising. When spending other people's money, there is no incentive to verify that trips are legitimate or worthwhile. With taxpayers facing $12.7 trillion in rapidly growing debt, it's time for bureaucrats to give up one of the most prized perks of so-called "public service." Self-approved, first-class travel with five-star accommodations in exotic locations at public expense should never be allowed. With the Obama administration's emphasis on the importance of mass transit and "livable communities" for Americans, perhaps he can begin by ordering his own employees to take the bus and stay at a Motel 6.