Members of the U.S. Congress received a little extra scrutiny recently, when the Associated Press reported on the miles and points windfalls the lawmakers receive on taxpayer-funded trips.
“There’s no question it’s a definite benefit. I would call it a nice perk,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. He uses the miles for upgrades and personal free trips, such as travel to charity golf tournaments in Sun Valley, Idaho.
The AP said LaHood and his wife each accumulated about 13,500 miles this year from a round trip between Chicago and China financed by the Aspen Institute. LaHood was among a dozen lawmakers attending a conference on U.S.-China relations sponsored by the Washington-based think tank.
Lawmakers routinely travel at the invitation of private groups or on official trips for their congressional committees. Frequent flyer credits are not part of the information they must report about the trips or disclose on their annual ethics statement.
Rep. Vic Snyder, a five-term Arkansas Democrat, uses miles from official travel for seat upgrades on privately sponsored flights. Other lawmakers do the same, he said.
“It is not a glamour life, traveling,” Snyder told the AP. “If it’s a requirement of employment to travel, I don’t have a problem” (keeping frequent flyer miles).
House and Senate rules let each lawmaker decide whether his office will allow personal use of miles or credits.
Trips abroad sponsored by companies, labor unions and interest groups can yield thousands of miles. A visit to Sydney, Australia, from Washington is nearly 20,000 miles round trip, and travel between Washington and Paris is about 7,700 miles round trip, for example.
“This is a gift that keeps on giving,” said Kent Cooper, co-founder of the Web site Political Money Line, which tracks congressional travel. “It will last them for years.”
In the early years of frequent flyer programs, there was some debate over whether or not federal employees could keep miles earned on taxpayer-funded travel. The government has since declared that such employees may, in fact, pocket the miles.