- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Members of Congress call it “standard policy.” Others would call it “stealing.” What I’m referring to is the practice by many members of Congress to pocket unused taxpayer-funded travel per diems for their own personal use. The Wall Street Journal detailed the scandal in a story on March 2:

When lawmakers travel overseas on official business they are given up to $250 a day in taxpayer funds to cover meals and expenses. Congressional rules say they must return any leftover cash to the government.

They usually don’t.

According to interviews with 20 current and former members of Congress, lawmakers use the excess cash for shopping or to defray spouses’ travel expenses. Sometimes they give it away; sometimes they pocket it. Many lawmakers said they didn’t know the rules demand repayment.

Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, the Wall Street Journal notes, admitted that it’s “fairly standard” policy for lawmakers to use the leftover money “for shopping or to buy souvenirs to bring back to constituents.”

In other words, members of Congress are using your tax dollars to go window shopping during congressional junkets.

Of course, to fully understand the depth of the problem, we would need to take a look at congressional records related to per diem use. The problem is there are none. Congress doesn’t have a system in place to track per diems, and lawmakers aren’t even required to keep receipts.

And as the Journal noted, in just the past two years, hundreds of lawmakers spent a total of 5,300 days visiting 130 foreign countries on taxpayer-funded trips. So we’re not talking about chump change.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine a more clear-cut example of the abuse of power than for member of Congress to steal from the taxpayers and line their own pockets. In fact, it may be a federal crime.

(For this reason, Judicial Watch recently filed an official complaint with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics related to the per-diem scandal and also sent a letter to the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics requesting “a full investigation and audit of House foreign travel expenditures and the pocketing of unused per diems.”)

House and Senate rules governing the reimbursement of foreign travel expenses are explicit. For example, according to Senate rules: “A per-diem allowance provided a member, officer or employee in connection with foreign travel shall be used solely for lodging, food and related expenses, and it is the responsibility of the member, officer or employee receiving such an allowance to return to the United States government that portion of the allowance received which is not actually used for necessary lodging, food, and related expenses.”

In the least, lawmakers are clueless about the fact that unused per diems cannot be converted for personal use. At worst, members may be illegally (and knowingly) pocketing taxpayer funds.

And members of Congress wonder why they’re stuck with a 16 percent approval rating.

Tom Fitton is president of Judicial Watch.

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