Taxpayer-funded travel has always been an easy target for both sides to score political points. Long before Democrats pounced on former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned over allegations related to his travel on private planes, Republicans cried foul over the use of taxpayer-funded planes for President Obama’s fundraising trips.
The salacious details related to taxpayer-funded travel across the executive and legislative branches of the federal government periodically make the headlines, but once they go away, the underlying problems remain unresolved. Travel information is fragmented, incomplete and impenetrable, if it is reported at all, making it difficult and time consuming to acquire. There is no accessible, searchable database to find out how often federal officials use taxpayer-funded travel and how much it costs.
Much official travel, in the executive and the legislative branch, is done on military aircraft using military aircrew and attendants, and the information that is released has either been ground through an arduous Freedom of Information Act process or cynically leaked in piecemeal fashion to injure the credibility of the official, rather than enlighten taxpayers. It is very hard to analyze or compare travel from one administration to another, or from one member of Congress to his or her successor.
The lack of transparency is exacerbated by vague, even slipshod regulations. In Secretary Price’s case, federal regulations advised, “Taxpayers should pay no more than necessary for your transportation.” The necessity standard is an extremely subjective one, allowing public officials on both sides of the aisle and their political operatives to define the spirit and letter of the rules.
Moreover, the rules differ from agency to agency and possibly from administration to administration. In the wake of the revelations regarding Secretary Price’s travel, the White House announced a new policy under which chief of staff John Kelly would ultimately sign off on Cabinet level travel. As laudable as that new policy may sound, it cannot possibly address longstanding obfuscation, inconsistent and fragmented reporting of travel rules, and a lack of reporting on the exact costs of work travel by Cabinet level officials.
The portrait of potentially profligate travel is even hazier in Congress, where members have been dodging accountability for many years as the cost and frequency increases. A USA Today investigation uncovered 557 trips that exceeded $10,000 in flight costs alone. It noted that these figures do not include hundreds of trips on military aircraft, and the official report by Congress of $14.7 million in taxpayer-funded trips in fiscal 2016 is likely a low estimate. The Treasury Department reported that “congressional travel cost nearly $20 million” last year, using data from the State Department. Neither agency “would explain the discrepancy, but both agencies stood by the higher figure.”
To ensure transparency, all taxpayer-funded trips by executive branch officials and members of Congress and their staffs should be disclosed on an easily accessible website after they are completed, which will allow watchdogs and citizens alike to analyze and judge the spending habits of public officials.
We are calling on taxpayers to sign an online petition to demand detailed data transparency on who is travelling at taxpayer expense, the mode of transportation, the identification of who is traveling along with the public official, the purpose of the trip, and the compilation of an annual report describing the travel expenses, including the costs associated with using military aircraft and personnel, all aggregated on one searchable website, much like the Federal Election Commission allows Americans to search campaign donations on its website.
The petition is available online and the signatures will be tallied and delivered to the White House and Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. Without greater transparency and accountability, the ethical issues permeating official Washington travel habits will continue to fester, and Americans will continue to be kept in the dark.