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Letter


NTU offers endorsement for H.R. 1359
Bill would offer greater transparency of Congress’s use of military aircraft for foreign travel.

May 8, 2013

The Honorable Walter B. Jones
2333 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congressman Jones:

I am pleased to offer an enthusiastic endorsement for H.R. 1359, a bill you have introduced in this session aimed at bringing greater transparency to Congress’s use of military aircraft for foreign travel. National Taxpayers Union’s (NTU’s) 362,000 members are grateful for your initiative to provide better disclosure of an expense whose details have long eluded taxpayers.

In recent years Congress has made some strides in both reporting and controlling some of its own burdens on taxpayers. In 2009, the House finally began posting Members’ office expense reports online (albeit in a less-than-convenient format), and in 2011 instituted a judicious across-the-board reduction in Members’ Representational Allowances. Both House and Senate Members’ salaries have remained frozen since 2009, while last year lawmakers voted to harmonize their highly generous defined benefit pension formula with that of rank-and-file federal employees (a step generally confined to those first elected in 2012).

Despite this progress, taxpayers remain effectively in the dark about several Congressional activities; among these is foreign travel. Although Congressional Delegation (CODEL) trips abroad are subject to committee approval as well as expenditure-reporting in the Congressional Record, these procedures are far from useful in establishing consistent and accessible data on the full costs of lawmakers’ travel overseas. For example, according to a Roll Call article from July 2010, travel abroad has tripled over the past decade, but between $30 and $40 million in associated costs were unreported. The bulk of the problem lies in the lack of a uniform data collection procedure. And while Members are technically responsible for returning excess per diem allowances, this rule is not vigorously enforced. Furthermore, Members are supposed to complete a detailed disclosure of expended funds when they return from a CODEL, but the Congressional Research Service has noted that these disclosures are of “limited utility” since they can be filed late or contain inaccuracies.

Perhaps the largest knowledge gap for fiscal purposes, however, is the component of travel attributable to military aircraft. While some overall funding figures are available for the 189th Airlift Wing (which tends to transport VIPs such as Members of Congress), and per-hour operating costs for certain aircraft have been made known to groups such as NTU, less can be determined about military travel for specific CODEL journeys.

Your legislation would shine a much-needed light onto some long-obscured entries in the Pentagon’s travel ledger. Specifically, H.R. 1359 would require the Secretary of Defense to determine the cost of military-provided transportation outside the U.S. for any Member, officer, or staff of Congress.

Within 10 days of a given trip’s completion, this information would be transmitted to the individuals who conducted the travel and the appropriate chamber’s Armed Services Committee. Most important, however, the document would be available for public inspection online for four years after the trip has concluded.

 Some in the Washington establishment may be tempted to denounce H.R. 1359 as unnecessary or even harmful, in that the information whose disclosure the bill would hasten might arouse public resentment to the point where “legitimate” overseas trips are deterred. We reject this cynical view. The American people are quite capable of weighing the costs and benefits of a given government activity, provided they have open access to reliable accounting. Indeed, resentment has occurred – and will continue to occur – precisely because the public has been denied the basic transparency surrounding Congressional travel. In any case, disclosure provisions would apply only to foreign trips outside of American military installations.

 Your legislation is an entirely reasonable attempt to introduce a measure of responsibility to the citizens who underwrite Congress’s travel. NTU urges your colleagues to cosponsor H.R. 1359, and our members look forward to assisting you in its passage. We congratulate you for your candor and courage in authoring this bill.

Sincerely,
Pete
Pete Sepp
Executive Vice President