Lawmakers have not tightened travel belts, fly in the face of budget rhetoric

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One of the unknowns is how much lawmakers are costing the Pentagon when they hop aboard free military flights as part of their trips. Currently, their disclosure reports don’t reflect the actual costs of those flights.

In March, Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, introduced legislation that would require public disclosure of costs each time a member of Congress hitches a ride on a military plane.

“Unless it’s absolutely necessary to get into a war zone or to visit the troops, I don’t think the military should be used as an overseas travel service,” Mr. Jones said.

The Defense Department is not required to disclose the exact costs to taxpayers when it transports lawmakers overseas, an issue that’s drawn fire from fiscal watchdogs.

“The military maintains a specially outfitted VIP fleet of aircraft, stationed at Joint Base Andrews, costing up to $10,000 per hour to operate,” Thomas Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, wrote in a letter sent to Capitol Hill in support of Mr. Jones’ bill. “Members of Congress often take advantage of these military aircraft for overseas travel, even in instances where commercial flights are readily available and more cost-effective.”

The disclosure requirement was eventually passed by the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014 that gives the Pentagon its funding.

“It is my belief that members of Congress should save money whenever possible by using commercial airlines,” Mr. Jones said. “Even if my colleagues disagree with me and continue to travel by military aircraft, I think it is perfectly reasonable for them to let the taxpayers know how much money this practice costs.”

Not all glamour

Not all the trips that lawmakers take, of course, have glamour or glitz.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. Bob Corker from Tennessee, recently traveled to Turkey, Iraq and Jordan to discuss ongoing violence in Egypt and Syria. He also met with leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Defenders say such trips overseas can allow congressional leaders to get valuable face-to-face time with their foreign counterparts, learn about different cultures and advocate for American interests abroad.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, traveled to Asia, where they met with officials in China, Mongolia and South Korea. Among the topics of the trip: North Korea, climate change and Chinese cyberpiracy, according to their disclosure report.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, went to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China. It was his first visit to the region since becoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. He met with senior political leaders and U.S. troops stationed in the region.

In the end, though, voters can still find plenty of examples of travel where sightseeing is clearly part of the agenda.

Democratic Reps. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia and Jim McDermott of Washington state accepted a trip to Norway through the Norwegian-American Parliamentary Exchange Program. The trip included a visit to the Arctic Circle as well as a boat tour for “a close-up view of a retreating glacier and unique habitats for cliff-nesting birds,” to look at the impacts of climate change, the U.S. Embassy in Norway reported.

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