First-class travel for lawmakers: a smarmy tale of congressional political games


Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) “voted against a balanced budget that bans taxpayer-funded first class travel for members of Congress.”

–National Republican Congressional Committee, 2014

Rep. Reid J. Ribble (R-Wis.) “voted to allow members of Congress to travel first class, even lease private jets—all at taxpayer expense.”

–Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 2012

This is a story about the ridiculous political games played all too often in Washington.

Earlier this week, some lawmakers earned headlines by introducing a bipartisan bill that would prohibit members of Congress from flying first-class using taxpayer funds. The proposed law has a mouthful of a title: “If our Military Has to Fly Coach Then so Should Congress Act.”

One of the co-sponsors, Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), earned some scorn for the idea from a political blogger at his local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who called it “an election-year gimmick.”

Actually, Barrow is trying to dodge an election-year gimmick. Let’s explore.

The Facts

Barrow is one of the dwindling band of conservative Democrats in the House, and thus is a prime target of Republicans. As part of its talking points, the NRCC is pushing the line that Barrow voted against a ban on using taxpayer funds for first-class travel by members of Congress.

What’s the evidence? Buried deep in the House Republican budget blueprint is Section 608, titled “Policy Statement on Responsible Stewardship of Taxpayer Dollars.” The policy statement included this line: “No taxpayer funds may be used to purchase first class airfare or to lease corporate jets for Members of Congress.”

The Republican budget blueprint passed the House by a vote of 219 to 205, with Barrow voting against it. But it was not taken up in the Senate, and even then it would have not had the force of law. (It’s simply a budget resolution.)

“You are correct,” said House Budget Committee spokesman William Allison. “The policy statement in the budget resolution does not have the force of law and therefore does not change any relevant laws or regulations governing Member travel.”

Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the NRCC, defended the attack on Barrow on the grounds that, in 2012, Democrats also pulled this stunt.

Bozek provided a copy of the ad above attacking Rep. Reid J. Ribble (R-Wis.), which was based on the fact that he voted against the Democratic budget blueprint in 2011, which contained this language: “It is the policy of this resolution that no taxpayer funds may be used to purchase first class airfare or to lease corporate jets for Members of Congress.”

The DCCC ad is pretty smarmy, starting off with this priceless line: “Imagine you could travel first class—and make taxpayers foot the bill.” The Fact Checker would have loved to have examined this ad in 2012 if we had been aware of it.

A spokesman for the Democrats on the Budget Committee was not able to explain how and why that language originally appeared in Democratic budget plan, which was crafted by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Interestingly, before becoming the ranking Democrat on the committee, Van Hollen chaired the DCCC.

The same language appears in the Democratic budget resolution for 2014, but here’s Barrow’s problem: He voted against that budget plan too. So he’s one of the few lawmakers in either party who did not vote for either resolution—and thus cannot claim he voted against first-class travel for lawmakers.

Indeed, two of Barrow’s co-sponsors of legislation ending first-class travel are in the same pickle. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) did not vote for either budget plan either.

With such overwhelming support for such a ban, one would think it would be a slam-dunk to get the language through Congress. But when this trio of  lawmakers, along with Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), recently sought an amendment to the Legislative Appropriations bill, saying the funds could not be used for first-class travel, it was not accepted in the Rules Committee.

So now the four lawmakers are trying for passage of an actual bill barring first-class travel.

To be frank, however, it’s doubtful that this proposed law would save any money. Each member of Congress gets a base allowance for travel, which is adjusted according to the distance from Washington to their congressional district. The allowance would not be cut; the proposed law will only require that lawmakers could not spend it on first-class fare. So passage of the law would merely be symbolic in terms of budget savings.

Gosar acknowledged that the “pervasiveness of this problem cannot be easily identified.” But, he said, “some members have and will continue to fly first class at taxpayer expense without this commonsense legislation. I expect members of Congress to lead by example. Living high on taxpayer money is the wrong message at the wrong time.”

Still, one has to ask:  Would many actually vote for such a law when they’ve already gotten political cover from nonbinding language in a budget resolution?

The Pinocchio Test

On every level, this story makes Congress look bad. Both parties have sought to insert little “poison pills” in their budget resolutions in order to use as campaign-attack political fodder. The NRCC is correct that the Democrats started this, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

Given that just about every lawmaker is on record as supporting a ban on first-class travel—and the few that are not on record are sponsoring a bill to do so—one would think that such a law would be on a fast track for passage. But don’t hold your breath.

Both congressional campaign committees earn Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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