Congressmen pay for expenses related to official duties out of a taxpayer funded account provided to cover the cost of staffing, office supplies and travel. The rules require them to use commercial flights for travel — except when the availability of those flights “are not such that reasonable schedules may be kept.” This is typical govermentese: obscure and vague allowing much latitude in interpretation.
An investigation by USA Today found that last year, two dozen Senators racked up nearly $1 million on such charters while others studiously avoided charters in favor of commercial flights. In some cases, Senators from the same state chose different methods of travel, with one flying commercial exclusively and the other racking up large bills for charter flights.
The Senators from Virginia, the state nearest to Washington D.C. are an example of this. While the junior Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) made a trip to the farthest points of the state in western Virginia where there are few commercial airports by car at a cost to the taxpayers of $691, his counterpart senior Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) made the same trip via chartered plane at a cost of $8,500.
“Senator Warner is a road warrior, and he insists on a schedule that goes from dawn to dusk,” said Kevin Hall, Warner’s spokesman. “He spent 75 days on the road in Virginia last year, and that does not include events here in Northern Virginia.”
The Senate delegation from Louisiana has similar travel habits, with senior Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, spending $47,000 in 2013 on charter flights, including one round trip between New Orleans and Lake Charles 200 miles away at a cost of $5,500, while the junior Senator from the state David Vitter, a Republican flying exclusively on commercial flights and traveling by car within the state.
Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for Landrieu, said that by using charters Landrieu avoided stop-overs and allowed the Senator to “maximize…interaction with her constituents.”
Many of the Senators who racked up a lot of charter flight miles come from sparsely populated states where their constituents are widely scattered, such as Republicans John Barrasso and Mike Enzi of Wyoming who spent a combined total of $115,000 which their offices said was unavoidable due to the geography of the state.
The two top charter fliers in the Senate were Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats of New York, although there are many commercial airports and train options available in the heavily populated state.
In all there were 14 Republicans and 9 Democrats who used charter flights in 2013 and although the Republicans outnumbered the Democrats, the Republicans were outspent by more than 2 to 1 with Democrats running up $638,000 of the $920,000.