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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

* When members of Congress do fly commercial airlines, they at times take first-class seats while their staff aides go coach. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., traveled first-class for a one-day stay in Geneva to lobby the United Nations Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution condemning Cuba. The cost: $4,284.

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However, one of Mr. Mack's aides went with him in a coach seat for $2,420.

* At the end of a trade trip to South America, eight members of the House Ways and Means Committee and seven of the panel's staff stopped off at the Caribbean island of Barbados for five days.

Between seven meetings with trade officials, they romped on the beach and mingled with congressional lobbyists, with an ABC television crew with hand cameras clandestinely videotaping the lawmakers' sun-filled break from Capitol Hill.

* The total cost of travel by congressional staff far exceeds the amount the lawmakers themselves spent.

* A decided preference among lawmakers exists for trips to Western Europe, Japan and other countries equipped with comfortable accommodations. Often, trips to developing nations -- where hotels may be a lot rougher -- are made by staff members unaccompanied by lawmakers.

A clear pattern emerged from The Sun study: Members of Congress much prefer hopping on a government plane stationed minutes from Capitol Hill at Andrews Air Force Base over putting up with the inconveniences of flying with the general public on commercial flights. It was this ready transportation source that Mr. Sununu tapped to satisfy his travel needs.

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Flying commercially would be less costly, but it also would mean that lawmakers would have to pay to take along their spouses. When there are empty seats on the Air Force planes, spouses go free of charge.

In the Sununu case, White House records show that the government was reimbursed at commercial rates for family members who accompanied Mr. Sununu, but the full cost of using military aircraft far exceeds the cost of flying on a commercial airline.

Safety may be another consideration. Congressional aides say that the Air Force flights abroad, while more costly, provide lawmakers with protection against terrorist attacks.

And flying commercially also could mean having to miss votes in the House or Senate chambers, apparently prompting many congressional travelers to opt for the more flexible, though more costly, schedules of the Air Force planes.

In one case, for instance, a 24-member House delegation flew on an Air Force plane to Rome for five days at a cost for most of the passengers of $4,873.22 each. TWA could have flown the delegation at a government discount for $834 for each round-trip coach fare, or $3,332 for the regular business-class fare.

The total transportation cost for the trip -- which was made so the House members could attend the North Atlantic Assembly, a 16-nation interparliamentary group -- came to $111,328.73.

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If all had gone business class on TWA, the cost would have been $79,968.

But the lawmakers flew on the higher-cost Air Force plane to keep their voting records intact, said one congressional travel planner. To make the TWA flight, they would have had to leave Capitol Hill hours earlier, with the House still in session.

"Many members would have simply stayed home rather than miss votes," the aide said.

Last June, Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., took five staff members of the House Ways and Means Committee on a seven-day trip by Air Force plane to Geneva, Poland and Czechoslovakia at a cost of $16,520.41 each. Total cost for the excursion, which was prompted by President Bush's request that Mr. Rostenkowski attend the Posnan International Trade Fair, came to $99,122.46.

With hundreds of such trips on military planes each year, the extra cost to taxpayers runs to millions of dollars. Precisely how much Congress spends traveling overseas, however, is difficult to determine.

According to figures published in 12 issues of the Congressional Record, the House and Senate spent $5.027 million on foreign travel between July 1, 1989, and June 30, 1990.

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The sum for 69 overseas trips taken by senators came to only $152,342 -- but the reports had huge blanks in the spaces where transportation costs should be recorded.

Senate rules do not require listing transportation costs for military flights, and thus the real cost of the trips far exceeded the total reported. Just how far, though, is not readily apparent from the published reports.

One thing that is apparent, however, is that the trips themselves generally appear to combine two goals: fact-finding and a heavy dose of political publicity.

For instance, between March 1 and March 3 last year, Representative Roy P. Dyson, who at the time was Maryland's 1st District Democratic congressman, and Representative Dennis M. Hertel, D-Mich., members of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, took four aides to Panama.

The military flight cost more than $44,000 ($7,345.11 each), yet the group spent no more than one full day in the country.

However, Mr. Dyson -- then in the midst of a tight re-election campaign -- phoned in reports from Panama that were broadcast by a Baltimore television station. Mr. Dyson was defeated last November.

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In another instance, the chief House photographer, Keith Jewell, went with 27 House members on an overnight trip to Panama in January 1990. The delegation was headed by House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.

Within a four-month period, Mr. Jewell also accompanied a delegation headed by Mr. Gephardt on a five-day trip to Vienna, Austria; Germany; and Brussels, Belgium, and on a three-day trip to Mexico.

L Mr. Jewell's transportation alone cost the House $13,759.02.

"The photographer was taken on the trip to record what the legislators had seen to help in their work later on legislation," said Deborah Johns, Mr. Gephardt's press aide.

The top Senate photographer, Alan Porter, also traveled during the period of The Sun's study -- going on an 11-day trip to Poland and then to Morocco with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and five Senate aides, including Walt Riker, Mr. Dole's spokesman.

Food and lodging for the trip came to $13,702.09, with Mr. Porter's and Mr. Riker's shares at $1,084 each. Following Senate practice, there was no disclosure of transportation costs.

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Members of Congress, especially senators, appeared by the travel records to be hesitant to step overseas without a press aide or an entourage of aides from their personal staffs.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, for example, traveled to Jordan, Israel and Switzerland at a cost for himself of $3,907. But by taking along three aides from his personal staff, the cost escalated to $14,920.

For the record

CORRECTION


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