Senate Ethics Committee Forced to Clarify Travel Cash Rules

According to Senate rules Members of the U.S. Senate can neither simply “keep the change” and pocket the unused portions of their travel per diems nor use them to buy gifts for campaign donors. That seems like common sense to me. These per diems, after all, are paid for by the taxpayers. Judicial Watch filed an ethics complaint with the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics in March 2010 after press reports documented widespread abuse of travel per diems by individual Members.



JW’s efforts appear to have paid off...at least in part.

On June 3, 2011, the Senate Ethics Committee sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all U.S. Senators and staff to make certain they "understand and adhere to the rules on unused per diem," following our complaint. The Senate Ethics Committee refused, however, to hold accountable individual Members of Congress referenced in press reports documenting per diem abuse.

According to a June 8, 2011, Senate Ethics Committee letter to Judicial Watch:
...based upon review of the information you have provided, it appears that your complaint lacks merit and further Committee action is not appropriate with respect to this matter. The Committee, however, has recently circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to ensure that all Members and staff, especially those who are new to the Senate, understand and adhere to the rules on unused per diem. [Emphasis added]

(I find it difficult to understand how the Committee can in one breath say there’s nothing to investigate regarding the per diem scandal and then in the next indicate that it had taken action to address the issue.)



Now, here’s an excerpt from the “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the Ethics Committee stating the obvious:
There has been recent media attention regarding the use of foreign travel per diem by Members and staff of the Senate. We want to make sure that you and your staffs know that any unused portion of your foreign travel per diem must be returned to the United States Treasury after you return home.

The letter was signed by Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) [a Member of our Washington’s “Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians” list for 2011.]) and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Senators Boxer and Isakson described the Senate rules regarding per diems and offered to provide copies of the State Department’s Official Foreign Travel Guide for the U.S. Congress for Members who are still “confused.”

As I mentioned, Judicial Watch was on this per diem scandal over a year ago. We filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee on March 31, 2010, (and hit the House Ethics Committee as well) following a March 2, 2010, Wall Street Journal article which described the abuses:
Congress has no system for tracking how the cash payments, called per diems, are being spent. Lawmakers aren't required to keep receipts and there are no public records. In the past two years, hundreds of lawmakers spent a total of 5,300 days visiting 130 foreign countries on taxpayer-funded trips, according to congressional travel records.

With regard to how Members of Congress may have misappropriated the funds, according to the article: “Sometimes they give it away; sometimes they pocket it. Many lawmakers said they didn't know the rules for repayment.”

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), The Wall Street Journal notes, admitted that it's “fairly standard” policy for lawmakers to use the leftover money “for shopping or to buy souvenirs to bring back to constituents.”

Personally I find ridiculous the notion that Members of Congress simply did not realize pocketing per diems is a no-no. First off, it’s basic commons sense. And secondly, this behavior is in violation of explicit House and Senate rules governing the reimbursement of travel expenses. For example, here is the Senate rule currently on the books regarding per diems, as articulated in the Ethics Committee letter:
A per diem allowance provided a Member, officer, or employee in connection with foreign travel shall be used solely for lodging, food, and related expenses and it is the responsibility of the Member, officer, or employee receiving such an allowance to return to the United States Government that portion of the allowance received which is not actually used for necessary lodging, food, and related expenses.

Do you see anything perplexing or unclear about this language? I’m guessing not. But at least now, with this recent communication from the Senate Ethics Committee, there can be no more claims of “confusion” by Members of the U.S. Senate. The case has been made to every single Member due to Judicial Watch’s actions in the matter.

We are pleased that the Senate Ethics Committee has responded to our call to educate Members on their responsibilities to the U.S. taxpayers and the rule of law regarding these per diems. But what a sad story that United States Senators need to be reminded that they can’t keep taxpayer cash for their own personal use.

And regarding the obvious per diem abuses by Members of the U.S. Senate, we believe a more thorough investigation is warranted. The Senate Ethics Committee shouldn’t give a pass to Members to misappropriated taxpayer funds, whether they are merely “confused” or purposely ignoring the policy for their own personal gain.

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