Senate backs provision to curb premium class travel abuse

A provision passed by the Senate this week aims to curb air travel abuse by federal employees recently exposed in a Government Accountability Office report.

The amendment, tacked on to the fiscal 2008 Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill (H.R. 3093), would prohibit federal employees from using funds from the spending bill to purchase premium class plane tickets unless justified under existing regulations. Current travel regulations, administered by the General Services Administration, state that employees may only fly first or business class for specific, preapproved reasons, such as a physical disability certified by a medical professional or a flight longer than 14 hours.

The provision, introduced by Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday, and will be debated in conference with the House. One of the amendment's co-sponsors, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has been appointed to the conference committee.

The amendment likely will be included, as similar language was incorporated in the House version of the spending bill. The House provision, introduced Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, is more limited than the Senate language, as it would apply only to Commerce Department employees.

Federal employees' travel spending has come under scrutiny lately; a GAO report released in September showed that workers spent at least $146 million on improper premium class air travel between July 2005 and June 2006. DeMint and McCaskill said in a press release that the provision would make the abuse of air travel illegal and force agencies to pay closer attention to the travel guidelines.

"Tax dollars should be spent wisely or not spent at all, and this type of waste is exactly why Americans are fed up with a federal bureaucracy that has grown too large to police itself," DeMint said in a statement. McCaskill called first-class airline travel an "unnecessary extravagance" and warned against treating tax dollars "like Monopoly money."

The GAO report (GAO-07-1268) stated that about 67 percent of premium travel was not properly authorized, justified or both. The watchdog agency said insufficient oversight was a primary cause of the abuse and issued a series of recommendations to GSA and the Office of Management and Budget. They included increasing travel audits, requiring agencies to report premium travel and taking a risk-based approach to travel monitoring.

OMB agreed that it is important to keep federal employees educated on existing travel regulations. OMB and GSA responded by saying they are working to develop guidelines and new requirements for agencies. These include that senior-level executives have travel approved by someone at least on an equal level and that medical certification for premium travel be renewed annually if it is not a permanent condition.

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