Congress trips mocked as junkets back on the way up


Taxpayers skimped on travel bills during the coronavirus pandemic when Congress dramatically cut foreign spending — but those trips are back at a rapid clip.

In recent days, senators and representatives have traveled to Germany, India, the United Arab Emirates and several stops in Africa.

First-class commercial airfare and lodging for congressional representatives and their staff for official travel is covered by the Treasury Department, with virtually no restrictions. Those bills ran to about $1.3 million in fiscal year 2021, but fell back to nearly $15 million last year.

That doesn’t take into account the hundreds of trips that the military provides for transportation; the cost of using military aircraft is never disclosed.

Lawmakers take the trips — often derided as junkets — to confer with foreign officials, visit U.S. military installations and observe foreign projects funded by the U.S. government. Congress does not have to approve spending on foreign travel, and there is no set daily dollar, travel, office, or individual limit.

Craig Holman, a public affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer organization, said the taxpayer-funded trips are less problematic than privately funded trips, but still lack basic transparency.

“Obviously, $15 million last year is not the whole picture because of unknown uses of military travel and generally we have a lack of disclosure,” Holman said. “We don’t really know how the taxpayers’ money is being spent.”

Which trips and members of Congress got the biggest tabs?

Congressional committees report trips in error-filled tables that are printed in the Congressional Record. USA TODAY standardized and analyzed numbers from last year for a glimpse of the biggest spenders.

Individual military branches collect detailed receipts for delegation travel but are hesitant to release that information to the public. USA TODAY recently obtained a tranche of US Navy documents via the Freedom of Information Act covering voyages from 2014 to 2016.

These itineraries include detailed dinner tabs and show members of Congress bringing their spouses along on many trips, despite official rules barring them from going except in “exceptional cases.” Spouses reimburse the government for food, but not for shared hotels or military travel.

Based solely on the limited spending reports listed in the Congressional Record, Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took the most expensive trip last year.

In May, he traveled to Moldova, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Austria as part of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The United States also sent a bipartisan delegation of eight senators and 12 representatives who reported their own expenses separately.

Meeks’ travel bill came to more than $111,000.

Andrei Vasilescu, a spokesman for the minority Democrats on the committee, said the trip was a complicated itinerary. Costs increased, he said, after military aircraft were unable to transport members and they faced additional housing costs because of the location. The journey has no requirement to produce public reports on achievements.

“The trip was an important time to talk to leaders about the global refugee crisis, food shortages and the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Vasilescu said.

Meeks was the most frequent traveler in the house last year with trips to Poland, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ukraine, Belgium, Finland, Turkey and Greece.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt was the most frequent traveler for three-quarters of last year, according to the most recent data available. Often, committees dealing with the budget, foreign affairs and military contain the frequent leaflets.

Bottles of wine and Waikiki Beach in expense reports

Records obtained by USA TODAY showed how in 2015, GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s congressional tour was cut short by a blizzard, so he hosted Sens. Chris Coons and Mark Warner at the upscale restaurant Magnolias in Charleston with $538.97, including a $100 tip. Graham employees say they have reimbursed authorities for the three bottles of wine they drank.

Last week, Graham led a bipartisan group that hopped from Munich to Zambia, South Africa, Botswana and Morocco. An itinerary obtained by news outlet Punchbowl shows time allotted for Victoria Falls and “conversation observations”, which appeared to be safaris requiring “roft casual” attire.

At the 2016 Munich Security Conference, Republican Senator John McCain led a 45-person delegation on the military’s crown, which required two jets. The manifesto documents included members of Congress, think tank leaders, foreign policy journalists and business leaders.

In 2015, Republican Senator John Cornyn took a group from the Senate Judiciary Committee to Hawaii. The group of 19 enjoyed a $2,445 dinner at Surf Lanai in Honolulu that included seven bottles of wine, plus beer and margaritas. Staff for Cornyn declined to comment on the trip, but pointed to rules that set per diem prices based on location and require members to reimburse the government for alcohol.

In May of that year, Republican Representative Michael McCaul took three fellow members of Congress and their spouses and staff through Israel, Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Berlin and France. A spokeswoman defended the costs and pointed to the need to investigate threats to the United States and counterterrorism abroad.

The trips “provide important, first-hand information to members of Congress who have been entrusted by the American people with powerful oversight,” Leslie Shedd, spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an email. “This is doubly true for members who serve on national security committees, and whose oversight authority extends to US operations abroad.”

The Pelosi trip shows a lack of cost transparency

Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the second most frequent flyer in Congress last year. That included her much-publicized trip to Taiwan in August that drew criticism from China.

Pelosi boarded a Boeing C-40C operated by the US Air Force on her flight to Taipei from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For other uses, the Air Force charges about $8,000 an hour to operate the 737-style jet. The flight became one of FlightRadar24’s most tracked in history.

Despite that, the congressional record reflects only $283.67 in expenses for the trip, not including military transportation or other covered expenses. Pelosi also detailed her travels to: Britain, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Armenia, Croatia and Egypt last year.

Pelosi’s communications staff did not respond to questions about her trips.

Are congress trips worth the money?

Setting aside the two pandemic years, travel spending in 2022 was about average over the past decade.

Congressional travel spending soared in 2016 to more than $19 million as new Republican-led intelligence committees scrambled to get into the field. The year before, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., oversaw a nearly doubling of House Intelligence Committee travel to nearly $2 million.

Col. Nate Cook, a former chief of the Senate Liaison Office for the US Army, led worldwide tours of military installations for Congress for three years before retiring in 2021. Cook said there is no substitute for personal inspection of how defense priorities are being financed. But he noted that business continued as usual during the pandemic, even without much congressional travel.

“The COVID basically stopped on the ground and we still acquired the Army with no problems,” Cook said. “If we went to nothing and still got things done, does that mean we could have gone without spending that money?”

Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigative team. Contact him at or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273. Tom Vanden Brook has covered the Pentagon since 2006. Contact him at

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