Congress

Proposals would bar Congress from buying first-class tickets. Good luck with that

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they're outraged by top officials of the Trump administration using taxpayer funds to buy first-class airline tickets and seats on private planes.

Those members of Congress can do the same, though — and don't seem in any hurry to change that. Three proposed amendments to Congress' annual budget bill that would bar public funds from being used to purchase first-class airline tickets appear doomed.

Tom Price resigned as Health and Human Services Secretary last year following eruptions after it was revealed he spent more than $1 million on travel, including chartered planes. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faced a scandal earlier this year for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on first-class tickets and chartered planes. Pruitt has said the pricey travel was necessitated by hostility he faced from members of the public. He remains in office, though his troubles go beyond travel scandals.

Under an amendment sponsored by Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., only coach tickets could be purchased by members of Congress, except in special cases such as a medical condition. The two have been working on trying to get a similar bill or amendment through the Capitol since 2014. Despite bipartisan support, the bills have repeatedly stalled.

The idea is to apply something like the Federal Travel Regulation, which requires executive agency employees to get authorization for any travel accommodations beyond coach class, to federal lawmakers.

President-elect Donald Trump said that he wanted to cancel the order for a new Air Force One, which is currently being developed.

Ruiz said he submitted the amendment because Republican leadership hasn't acted on a stand-alone bill that would impose the same limits — and, he predicted, would pass in the House.

“The COACH Act should be voted on as a stand-alone bill to send a clear message to the administration and all elected officials that public service should be about improving the lives of the people they serve, not to gain comfort in their own lives," Ruiz said.

There's no data on how many members buy first-class plane tickets, and how much they spend doing so. But Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, said optics alone may keep most members from getting too comfortable as they go between home and D.C.

"These are people who travel to and from their districts a lot, and some of them have told me they have the points to fly first-class but won't use them," Alexander said — even when such an upgrade wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime. "They say, 'I want to go talk to my constituents without a newspaper article that says I flew first class.'"

Even if it passed, an amendment might not produce much in the way of savings for taxpayers. Members of Congress have set office allowances to fund work expenses such as staff, travel, mail and office equipment; members get bigger allowances depending on how difficult their district is to access from D.C. Money saved by not buying first-class tickets would likely simply be used for other expenses.

However, in theory at least, office allowances that go unused do reduce the deficit.

The total allowance budget in the House was $562.6 million in fiscal year 2018.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who is sponsoring one of the other, similar amendments, said the motivation behind it was to increase accountability and transparency, and ensure members use their allowance responsibly.

"Americans have very little faith in Congress as an institution," Murphy said. "They are tired of Congress failing to do its job — like passing a budget on time — while members continue to enjoy perks at the expense of taxpayers."

The amendments will be considered as part of the annual budget bill to fund Congress in a House Rules Committee hearing next week. Committee leadership decides what amendments are included in the final bill the House approves or disapproves on the floor, but doesn't comment on the odds of particular amendments passing.

A similar amendment last year was blocked in committee.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby
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