The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Waste on a Plane

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Any traveler would prefer champagne, fine dining, and ample leg room on their next plane flight.  However, most people either cannot afford a premium class ticket or deem it not worth the extra expense.  Charging the tickets to the government has a way of changing the equation.  An April 2006 Government Accountability Office report revealed how some public servants are traveling like rock stars at the taxpayers’ expense. 

GAO reported that from April 2003 to September 2004, the State Department spent $94 million on first and business class tickets that were unauthorized, unjustified, or both.  Sixty-seven percent of premium class travel fell into this category.  Some of the most flagrant abuse came at the hands of senior employees.  One presidential appointee bought 45 premium-class tickets at a cost of $213,000. 

The department also paid $6 million for unused tickets and has admitted that it does not bother to investigate whether or not tickets are used.  In one instance, two identical business class tickets were purchased for the same trip between Ethiopia and New Mexico.  One set of tickets valued at over $8,000 was never used.  The State Department also failed to properly reconcile or dispute $420,000 in unauthorized charges with Citibank, its creditor.

Federal regulations stipulate that travelers fly coach for official domestic and international travel.  Premium class tickets are authorized only under extenuating circumstances, such as when a flight last more than 14 hours, and must be approved on a case-by-case basis.  According to the GAO report, top State Department executives used premium class travel regardless of the length of the flight, pressuring employees beneath them to sign blanket authorizations for all travel over a period of time.  Some of these authorizations were done under the guise of “improving morale.” 

The waste and abuse at the State Department illustrates the larger truth that government travel has become a sinkhole for tax dollars.  In 2003, the GAO documented similar problems at the Department of Defense (DOD):  Almost three-fourths of first and business class airline travel was improper.  The DOD spent $124 million on more than 68,000 premium airline tickets in fiscal 2001 and 2002 when cheaper alternatives were available. 

Excessive executive branch travel practices also include the expenditure of millions of dollars every year on unnecessary and ineffective training conferences.  In addition, members of Congress see globe-trotting to exotic locations as a crucial part of their jobs.  The Associated Press reported that over the past two years, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) traveled to Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, Israel, Kuwait, Georgia, France, and Italy at a cost of $13,000.  Rep. Ray LaHood’s (R-Ill.) wife often accompanies him on trips.    

From top to bottom, there is very little sense of frugality in the federal government.  The solution to travel abuses is better application of standard business practices, such as cost-benefit analysis, oversight, and internal controls.  However, procedures don’t work when people in authority bend the rules to obtain cushy perks for themselves.  This sense of entitlement must end.  The average taxpayer doesn’t fly first class, and neither should federal employees.   

-- Jessica Shoemaker

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