Lax policies make congressional trips open to abuse FREQUENT FLYING: THE HIGH COST OF GOVERNMENT TRAVELBY: Stephen E. Nordlinger

April 28, 1991|By Washington Bureau of The Sun Arch Parsons, Peter Honey and Susan Hansen, all of The Sun's Washington Bureau, contributed to this article and to research for the accompanying charts.

WASHINGTON — In a graphic detailing trips abroad on military aircraft by members of Congress, a trip to Korea and Japan from Dec. 26, 1989, to Jan. 3, 1990, was incorrectly attributed to Representative Lamar Smith, R.-Texas. The trip in fact was taken by Representative Larry Smith, D.-Fla.

The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- John Sununu's personal and political trips )) on military aircraft have thrown the spotlight on the widespread use of Air Force planes by top federal officials and members of Congress.

But Mr. Sununu -- the White House chief of staff whose 77 trips on military aircraft have sparked public questioning and an official policy review -- is far from alone in turning to the convenience of military planes to meet hurried travel commitments.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Capitol Hill lawmakers take hundreds of trips every year on military planes to points around the globe.

This mode of travel is expensive -- far exceeding the cost of trips on commercial airlines -- but the officials and lawmakers are following the practice of top executives in private business who depend on their own corporate jets to save valuable time.

All the lawmakers and public officials must do to take a military flight is get a ride to Andrews Air Force Base. From there, the Pentagon will whisk them to their destinations -- with none of the scheduling troubles and baggage checks inflicted on ordinary travelers.

The cost of trips by executives traveling on business can be written off on their tax returns.

But taxpayers are directly footing the bill for the military flights.

The Pentagon generally refuses to make available information on travel by individual members of the executive branch. The separate agencies keep records on travel, but they are hard to come by; there is no central place where records are stored.

Congress does issue periodic reports on foreign travel by its members, but these reports are often far from complete. Senate rules, for instance, require only a bare accounting of the cost. The House lists what purports to be the full cost of using military planes, including fuel and aircraft depreciation.

But neither the Senate nor the House, except in rare cases, gives an inkling of the reasons why its members traveled abroad.

Such omissions raise suspicions that business and pleasure can be easily mixed on these foreign excursions -- especially when Paris, London or a Caribbean island appear as a final stop on the way home.

To shed light on the extent that military aircraft are used for purposes that fall outside the Pentagon bailiwick, The Sun studied the foreign travel records for members of Congress, published in the Congressional Record from July 1, 1989, to June 30, 1990, a full year that falls within the time of Mr. Sununu's questioned traveling.

The study showed that foreign travel by lawmakers on military planes costs several million dollars a year, with many of the trips, even if only for a few days, costing more than $5,000 each.

In many cases, cost information was not submitted and published until more than a year after a trip. Most senators who traveled omitted any information on the exact length of their trips, revealing instead only the quarter of the year in which a trip was taken. Only a handful of senators listed the cost of transportation.

However, legislation that would make this information readily available to the public -- that would require full disclosure of the costs and purpose of congressional trips and would mandate use of the least costly transportation whenever possible -- has floundered in Congress for years.

"The only way to avoid abuse is to have full disclosure," said Representative Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Pa., perennial sponsor of a bill that would mandate stricter reporting and would apply to people in the executive and judicial branches as well as those in Congress. Information on travel by administration officials and judges is especially difficult to come by, he said, because there is no central point where it is available.

Last week the Government Accounting Office, investigating arm Congress, was asked once again to probe the problem. In response to a congressional request, the GAO said it would investigate use of military aircraft by "high governmental officials of both the executive and legislative branches."

The Sun's review of the records available for congressional travel showed that:

* Lawmakers and their aides usually fly overseas on planes operated by the Air Force, at costs that greatly exceed fares on commercial airlines.

* Some trips include press aides and House and Senate photographers to supply pictures to show voters back home.

* The House doorkeeper, who handles housekeeping and protocol duties during the congressional sessions, accompanied a House delegation on a 10-day, $99,091 trip to Eastern Europe.

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