San Diego

Retiring Reps Still Fly Overseas on Taxpayer Dime

Rep. Darrell Issa Visited Germany after Announcing Retirement

Last January, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, announced he would not seek reelection, amid a rapidly shifting political climate and a wave of Republican lawmakers calling it quits.

Issa, 64, served nearly two decades in Congress, and in 2010 he became the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He is currently a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

About a month after announcing his retirement, Issa traveled to the Munich Security Conference in Germany between February 16 and February 18. 

The expense was highlighted in a USA Today report about how a number of lawmakers are finding time to travel the world after announcing their retirement, but before clocking out from the 115th Congress. 

The cost to taxpayers for the trip was $1,719, according to Congressional foreign travel reports available online

The trip wasn’t unique or illegal. Secretary of Defense James Mattis attended along with other members of the House, Senate, and members of President Donald Trump’s administration. World leaders met about national security engagement and cooperation.

“Congressman Issa announced his retirement in January with a full year of voting and Congressional activities remaining,” his chief of staff wrote in an email about the trip. “The Congressman remains active and engaged in his committee obligations which include House Judiciary, House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight committees), furthering legislation and participating in dialogues that influence the direction of federal policymaking. The travel he participates in advances these efforts.”  

At least 17 retiring members of Congress went on overseas trips after announcing they were not going to seek re-election, according to travel information included in the Congressional Record. The total cost of the travel for taxpayers was nearly $190,000, according to the story published in the USA Today

The trips were all legal because they were signed off by the members’ committee chair. The question is whether these work trips are meant for just work, according to nonprofit good-government groups.

In some of the cases, the public interest of congressional trips is obvious. For example, in early 2018 several U.S. representatives traveled to Canada and Mexico to participate in negotiations on a new North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Not all trips are junkets, but they do all cost money," Issa said. 

But the good-government group, Public Citizen, says it is suspicious that all of these trips are just for congressional-related business.

According to Public Citizen, the group of exiting lawmakers that continue to travel are costing taxpayers more than $100,000. 

Their destinations have included Canada, Mexico Italy, Germany and Thailand.

Government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman said some of these trips appear to be vacation destinations.

“The problem with most of these trips is they lack of disclosure,” Holman said. “All we know is they went somewhere and what the price tag is. It doesn’t discuss what the itinerary was, or if any business was conducted whatsoever and if their spouses went along.”

At first blush, the travel expenses documented in the Congressional record may seem like a large number, but Issa said it's important to keep perspective and look at the cost relative to the $4.3 trillion federal budget. 

"If you look at General Motors and they have a $50 billion budget, it's not outrageous to have a $200 million audit," Issa said. "It's relative."  

Other lawmakers responded to NBC7 saying the work trips continue even though they may not be seeking re-election in November because their work continues until the 115th Congress is out of session in January 2019.  

In cases of staffers traveling, sometimes when a lawmaker retires, their staff members find jobs with other representatives and continue their work in the House. 

Issa was not the only member of San Diego’s congressional delegation to have documented expenses for a taxpayer-funded trip overseas in 2018. But he was the only retiring lawmaker.

U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-California, traveled to Cuba from February 17 to February 21 at a taxpayer cost of $444, according to the reported expenditures.

A spokesperson for Davis said the purpose of the trip was to meet with U.S. and Cuban officials about investigations of health incidents involving U.S. government personnel in Cuba, among other topics and issues.

Davis, however, is running for reelection and is a very active member of Congress, her spokesman said.

Davis also went on an official foreign travel delegation to Poland at a total cost of $4,131. Davis' spokesperson said the congresswoman was part of a bipartisan delegation representing the U.S. House of Representatives at a session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO-PA).

Her office sent the following statement from Davis. 

“As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, meeting with foreign leaders face-to-face is critical for me to do my job and make quality policy decisions. Today, it is more imperative than ever that the world knows many Americans still share a common goal in defending human rights, freedom, and democracy.”

Issa said one of the problems with the way trips are documented for Congressional leaders is the information can be scattered in different reports or include minimal disclosures about the trip, making tracking lawmakers' travel difficult for the public. 

"For example, if a member charters a private 757, the cost that shows up on the congressional travel record is $0 for the military plane, but if they fly coach for 12 hours overseas, it could be a $4,000 expense that shows up on the record," said Issa.

Issa added that expenses for all staff members show up under the representative's name when the lawmaker may not have been the one traveling, and the congressional record alone does not always make this distinction. 

NBC7 also reviewed in-country travel expenses for San Diego's delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives and found it is difficult to distinguish expenses of staff members vs. their bosses for mileage and flights back and forth to the district the lawmaker represents. 

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