Free Trips Yield Frequent Flyer Miles for Lawmakers

Some members of Congress reap an undisclosed benefit: frequent-flier miles from trips taken at the expense of special interests or taxpayers.


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Globe-trotting members of Congress reap a valuable fringe benefit they do not disclose: frequent-flier miles from trips they take at the expense of special interests or taxpayers.

It does not take long for the miles to add up for free personal travel or upgrades to first class.

''There's no question it's a definite benefit. I would call it a nice perk,'' said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. He uses the frequent flier miles for upgrades and personal free trips, such as travel to charity golf tournaments in Sun Valley, Idaho.

LaHood and his wife each accumulated about 13,500 miles this year from a round trip between Chicago and China financed by the Aspen Institute. LaHood was among a dozen lawmakers attending a conference on U.S.-China relations sponsored by the Washington-based think tank.

Lawmakers routinely travel at the invitation of private groups or on official trips for their congressional committees. Frequent flier credits are not part of the information they must report about the trips or disclose on their annual ethics statement.

That lack of disclosure baffles even some groups that pay for the trips.

''Eventually a couple of trips is a free trip, right? So I suppose taking into account how rigid the normal rules are, this should technically be accounted for,'' said Kiran Pasricha, who heads the Washington office of the Confederation of Indian Industry. The pro-trade group, financed by Indian companies, flies several members of Congress to India each year.

Consumer Electronics Association spokesman Jeff Joseph, whose group pays for congressional visits to Las Vegas for its convention, said: ''It does seem a bit strange that members have to report what really are nominal gifts ... but not report frequent flier miles.''

Rep. Vic Snyder, a five-term Arkansas Democrat, uses frequent flier miles from official travel for seat upgrades on privately sponsored flights. Other lawmakers do the same, he said.

''It is not a glamour life, traveling,'' said Snyder, who upgraded his seat on a May flight to Turkey to attend an Aspen Institute trip to Istanbul for a conference on Islam.

''If it's a requirement of employment to travel, I don't have a problem'' keeping frequent flier miles, Snyder said.

Weekly flights home are a standard way for members to accumulate flier miles. Those trips often begin with a dash to one of Washington's three airports, where lawmakers park for free.

A lawmaker flying weekly between Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., would travel roughly 4,680 miles by air a week, or 243,360 a year. If all those yearly miles counted for United Airlines' standard awards program, they would be enough for roughly six round-trip flights within the continental U.S. - or four round-trip tickets to Hawaii.

Trips abroad sponsored by companies, labor unions and interest groups can yield thousands of miles. A visit to Sydney, Australia, from Washington is nearly 20,000 miles round trip, and travel between Washington and Paris is about 7,700 miles round trip, for example.

''This is a gift that keeps on giving,'' said Kent Cooper, co-founder of the Web site Political Money Line, which tracks congressional travel. ''It will last them for years.''

House and Senate rules let each lawmaker decide whether his office will allow personal use of frequent flier miles or the credits some airlines offer instead of miles. The Associated Press surveyed all 535 members of Congress to see how the miles and credits were used; fewer than 60 offices responded.

Of those responding, fewer than two dozen acknowledged that the lawmaker and aides could add the miles and credits to their personal frequent flier accounts. About three dozen lawmakers said they would reserve those earned from government travel for use on official trips or to let spouses and children accompany them on official travel.

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