Government Under Scrutiny for Overly Generous Overseas Travel Spending

Federal employees are allowed to spend $608 per night in Paris, double what some U.S. allies allow, a new study finds. Federal employees are allowed to spend $608 per night in Paris, double what some U.S. allies allow, a new study finds. Shutterstock.com

Four Democratic senators on Wednesday introduced a bill to curb what they see as wasteful travel and office spending by Trump administration appointees. The same day, an investigative group released a study showing that the U.S. government in some cases allows federal employees to spend twice as much on overseas travel per day as allied governments.

“I have been appalled by the Trump administration officials who take advantage of taxpayers to subsidize first-class travel and other frivolous luxuries,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who introduced the Executive Branch Waste and Fraud Recovery Act with Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Gary Peters of Michigan.

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Mentioning now-departed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Carper said, “It should be obvious that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be wasted on fancy office furniture, unnecessary charter flights, sports games or trips to Disneyland.”

Their bill would establish a process through which most senior agency officials would be required to repay taxpayer dollars that were inappropriately spent on items such as private flights, entertainment and vacations. It would apply to unsuitable expenses under $300,000 by officials or former officials on the Executive Schedule.

Using investigative and recoupment procedures from the 1986 Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act, the bill would require agencies to investigate related findings by inspectors general while providing due process, such as administrative hearings, for officials accused of overspending.

The bill quickly won backing from the nonprofit organizations Project on Government Oversight and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

But equally significant waste and excess may be found in the official per diems available to thousands of rank-and-file agency officials when they travel overseas, according to a study released by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet.

Reporters Tik Root and Chris Zubak-Skees examined Pruitt’s June 2017 three-night trip to Rome, and then his two nights in Bologna to meet with G-7 environment ministers. He would be reimbursed for meals and lodging at $1,942. But compare that with the same trip taken by Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (though for four nights). She claimed only $812 for reimbursement.

Overall, the center asserted, U.S. government per diems are “significantly more generous than the comparable standards set by other countries and institutions.”

What’s more, the agency authorities tasked with “setting, maintaining and overseeing these per diem rates—the daily, taxpayer-funded allowance government officials receive for lodging, food and incidentals while traveling—also benefits from them,” the reporters wrote. “This includes members of Congress and employees of the U.S. State Department."

For example, the center’s data show that the U.S. government allows $608 per night for a trip to Paris, $416 for a trip to Prague and $356 for a trip to Ankara, Turkey. All are nearly double what is allowed for officials traveling on behalf of the United Nations, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Averaging travel allowances for trips to 130 countries by officials for the same four entities, the analysis showed that the United States provides at least 30 percent more in allowances.

The reporters mostly met with a wall of silence from agency officials and lawmakers. But Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “naturally, I’m concerned any time I hear questions about waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars or at the State Department.”

“If there’s a problem that requires legislative involvement, Congress should be ready to act,” he said.

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