Making members of Congress fly coach doesn’t exactly level the flying field


A lone arriving passenger walks onto the Reagan National Airport Metro platform.(Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated. A proposal from a group of House members — two Republicans, two Democrats — aims to cut the federal budget by forcing elected officials to fly coach. This would save money, although it's not clear how much. It would not, however, make members of Congress suffer through flights the way everyone else does.

The measure from Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), and Raul Ruiz (D-Ca.) is captured entirely in its evocative title: the "If Our Military Has to Fly Coach Then so Should Congress Act of 2014." Instead of always flying members of the military first class, which would also have solved that problem, the representatives decided to bar members of Congress from using any seats besides those in coach. Or, more accurately, the cheapest fare possible. No extra leg room, apparently — although exceptions may be made for medical conditions. (Point of personal editorial privilege: as a tall person, being tall should count in this case.)

How much this would save the government isn't clear. Gosar's press release mentions the size of the national debt twice but doesn't include how much the measure is expected to save. Russell Solomon, press assistant to Gosar, indicated by email that there is no estimate of expected savings because "the information to make one is not available."

Regardless: Let's say this passes (which, at this point, is anyone's guess). Does this mean that the next time you are on your way to Reagan National for a flight, you'll be fighting for a parking spot with Sen. Joe Manchin or standing next to a fidgety Rep. Paul Ryan in the security line, as he frets about making his flight, or be sitting next to Rep. Keith Ellison in row 22 on your flight? No. No, it does not.

Members of the current 113th Congress have, since the beginning of last year, received over $8 million in free travel from generous sponsors, according to LegiStorm, a site that aggregates data on Congressional spending. In February, the site noted that the trips tallied in 2013 were the most in any year since 2007 — the point at which reforms aimed at ending lobbyist-sponsored trips kicked in. No one in the current Congress has been on more sponsored trips than Ellison, who has been on 13. (According to Mike Casca, Ellison's communications director, none of those flights was in first- or business-class, and each was approved by the House Ethics Committee.)

Last April, Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green documented the other perks alluded to above. Reagan National sets aside parking next to the terminal for members of Congress, which could free up an additional $738,760 a year for the regional airport authority if it didn't exist. And, Green noted, members of Congress can book multiple flights to assure a larger window for departure, and then cancel the unused flights without penalty.

There's another reason that this measure won't have as big an effect as it at first seems. Existing rules state that members of the government can use the frequent filer miles they accrue from all of their flying back-and-forth to upgrade their flights, as desired. Since such an upgrade wouldn't require the use of any federal funding, the new law wouldn't prohibit regular ol' seat upgrades.

So there's the deal. If this law passes, members of Congress can still drive up to their terminal-adjacent parking spots and hop on whichever flight they decided to take and upgrade their seats using their existing miles. Assuming they're footing the bill for it at all.

And assuming that a sequestration-era restriction on members of Congress hopping on military aircraft to travel the world isn't lifted. But that's how the military travels, so it's probably fine.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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