Legislators Cash In on Cash Advances

While we’re pinching pennies, some members of Congress are pinching our nickels and dimes. According to the Wall Street Journal, legislators traveling overseas on government business are often pocketing money meant to cover incidental expenses.

Lawmakers are provided with a cash advance of up to $250 per diem for meals and ancillary costs, such as local transportation and tips.  House and Senate rules specify that these cash advances can be used only for legitimate expenses and any unspent monies are to be returned.  Some legislators however, use the money to offset their spouse’s travel expenses or purchase artwork and gifts.  Others simply pocket the cash.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said lawmakers often used leftover money “for shopping or to buy souvenirs to bring back to constituents. That’s fairly standard.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) said he once bought marble goblets in the Kabul airport as gifts for constituents. Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.) said he dipped into his funds to buy a $200 painting of an estuary in Turkey, which hung in his office for a while and was now in his house.

Unlike most business travelers, lawmakers aren’t required to obtain receipts or submit expense reports.  Many of the legislators the Wall Street Journal interviewed, think any unused money is small potatoes and theirs to keep.

“I won’t deny that sometimes I have a little left, but it’s not much – maybe 80, 90, or 100 dollars,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.).

“You are all concerned about nickels and dimes, and I’m not,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.). “You know, in a taxicab in Kazakhstan, I don’t have time to get a receipt – I don’t speak Kazakh.”

Judging by Rep. Hastings’ comment, those nickels and dimes are evidently chump change to legislators – in both parties.  Shouldn’t our elected representatives be held accountable for the expenses they incur when traveling on government business?  If not, then we’re the chumps for letting them keep our change.