House lawmakers traveling on official business will be sitting back with the tourists and spending their own money on souvenirs under new rules announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday.
Lawmakers and their staff will have to fly coach or economy class for almost all overseas trips, with business-class seats allowable only when a trip is more than 14 hours, Pelosi said. The new rule applies to domestic flights too.
"These travel policy announcements are part of our continuing effort to ensure transparency and accountability in congressional management," the California Democrat said.
They also come six months before congressional elections where government overspending is certain to be an issue.
Pelosi, in a letter to committee chairmen, makes clear that per diem provided to members or staff can only be used for official purposes: That would exclude spending on gifts or souvenirs or personal side trips. And all excess funds are to be returned to the Treasury.
Per diems, determined by the State Department, vary widely depending on the location. The per diem for Paris is $481, but in Afghanistan, where official visitors would be housed in government facilities, the per diem is $28.
Pelosi also restates or strengthens existing rules: That any member seeking to travel must provide an itinerary, an explanation of purpose and a cost estimate to the relevant committee chairman and that spouses and other family members may accompany a member only when necessary for protocol purposes and at no cost to the government.
A lawmaker's personal staff - as opposed to committee staff - cannot participate in congressional delegations, or CODELS.
Concrete figures on the costs of CODELS are hard to come by, because they are shared by the State Department, the Defense Department and Congress. Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, said that in 2009 House committees reported about $8.7 million in travel expenses, and the Senate a little more than $5 million.
The rules announced by Pelosi do not affect the Senate.
The Wall Street Journal, in a study of military travel documents, said lawmakers took more than 230 trips on Air Force planes between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept. 30, 2009, at an average cost of more than $500,000 a trip.
Pelosi reminded committee chairmen that the availability of Pentagon aircraft to support congressional travel "is extremely limited" and that, depending on the type of the plane, a minimum and bipartisan number of members will be required.
House Democrats took several steps to eliminate abuses in congressional travel after they gained the majority in 2007, including banning the private funding of trips and barring members from flying on corporate jets.