Congressman to Colleagues: Go to the Back of the Plane

The bills would prohibit use of official funds for first-class air travel or long-term car leases.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Alex Clearfield
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Alex Clearfield
Jan. 2, 2018, 8 p.m.

This past summer, members of Congress lost access to VIP parking spaces close to the terminal at Reagan National Airport. Now, Iowa Republican Rep. Rod Blum is taking aim at some of his colleagues’ other cushy travel perks.

The swing-seat second-termer’s No Congressional First Class Flights Act and No Congressional Vehicle Leases Act would prohibit use of official funds for non-coach-class airline travel and long-term vehicle leases, respectively.

Each congressional office receives a Members’ Representational Allowance to be used for personnel, official office expenses, and franked mail. Office-expense funds are determined in part by the distance from the member’s district to Washington, as well as the cost of office space in the district. It ranges from a minimum of $1.25 million to a maximum of $1.43 million.

Currently, members are permitted to fly commercial first-class without restriction. But exactly how often they spring for the top-level tickets is hard to pin down. As per a USA Today analysis, 557 congressional flights for members or staff in 2016 cost more than $10,000, which accounted for 40 percent of all trips with publicly reported costs.

There’s a saving grace for members with bigger wallets or a longer commute. Nothing in the bill prevents members from using their own money or frequent-flyer miles earned through official travel to upgrade from coach.

Former Wisconsin Republican Rep. Reid Ribble, who was himself a good-government crusader during his time in Congress, said he’s unaware of members using their own money to buy first-class airfare, except for those with extremely long flights, and even then those members often get comped by the airlines. He feels the bill would set into law what is standard practice and “codify for the American people that members aren’t spending money in that fashion.”

The member with the longest commute, Del. Madeleine Bordallo of Guam, said through a spokesperson that she feels the “current House rules appropriately regulate the use of the members’ Representational Allowance for official travel” and “enable her to avoid any downtime or jet lag” when she flies the 18-plus hours (with a 15-hour time difference) back to the island.

When it comes to traveling far-shorter distances, members of Congress are permitted to lease official vehicles for the lengths of their terms, or longer if they accept personal responsibility for outstanding payments after they leave office. Payments may be no more than $1,000 per month. Blum’s bill would restrict all car leases to 30 days.

Blum’s spokesperson says since members are essentially never in D.C. or their district for 30 consecutive days, the maximum lease length allowed by the bill is more than sufficient.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, an Arizona Democrat who represents a large, mostly rural district, supports Blum’s bill. His office does not lease a vehicle long-term, utilizing only short-term rentals.

“Not only are these options more cost-effective than long-term vehicle rentals, they provide flexibility for my staff’s and my busy travel schedule and ensure that the vehicles are used for official work,” O’Halleran said.

Nebraska Republican Adrian Smith, on the other hand, said, “a leased official-use vehicle is a safe and cost-effective solution for us.” Kansas Republican Roger Marshall, who represents the expansive district known as the “Big First,” said that while his office does not lease an official vehicle, “it may be cheaper in some cases” than paying out reimbursements for use of a personal car.

In this case, Ribble is skeptical that the bill would create a better system since the current arrangement of reimbursement for personal-vehicle use is “pretty simple to scam if someone were inclined to cheat it,” and that separating official from unofficial business can be difficult when back in the district. Among his many ethical transgressions, former Rep. Aaron Schock billed the federal government for 90,000 more miles than he drove.

Ribble said many members’ official leased vehicles are large vans with workspaces capable of hosting meetings, saying, “The whole point is that the member is available and visible, and able to meet with constituents.”

Blum’s spokesperson acknowledges that asking Congress to pare back its own benefits is a difficult task, saying, “it would be an interesting vote,” were the bill to make it to the floor.

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