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Congress does not pay for its own flights. Under a Korean War-era statute that was updated in the 1970s, the Treasury Department is directed to pay for congressional trips overseas from whatever funds it has available. Congress does not have to approve spending for its foreign travel each year, and there is no set dollar limit.
Most taxpayers will never pay $10,000 in flights for an overseas trip, but in the year prior to the 2016 election, taxpayers paid for 557 such trips that each cost more than $10,000 for a member of Congress or a staffer.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was part of a group of four GOP congressmen and three staff members who spent $90,000 on a five-day trip to Albania for a NATO summit in May 2016.
Those five-digit global itineraries made up 40% of all individual congressional trips for which travel costs were publicly reported. By comparison, less than 0.2% of tickets purchased by the general public through U.S. travel agencies in 2015 and 2016 were more than $10,000, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.
The pricey flights were part of a surge in foreign travel. Congress spent at least $14.7 million on taxpayer-funded trips in fiscal year 2016, a 24% increase over the year before, according to Congress’ own accounting.
In October 2015, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling and six other lawmakers accompanied by six staff members racked up $98,613 in expenses on a weeklong trip to Germany, Switzerland and England — with no airfare, according to the report in the Congressional Record.