Free Trips Yield Frequent Flyer Miles for Lawmakers

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.

Retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., said he sees no problem with lawmakers keeping frequent flier miles from government-financed travel, in part because other federal employees get to keep them and there is no conflict of interest with such trips. For travel paid by private groups, members of Congress should consider who is paying, Simpson said.

''If the red flag is up, you not only forget about miles, you forget about the trip,'' Simpson said. ''If you do the trip, then you must feel there is no conflict and then you keep the frequent flier miles.''

Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., a multimillionaire, is among lawmakers who use flier miles for government travel.

''Anything we get on the public dollar should be limited to public purposes,'' Dayton said. He has given Northwest Airlines a standing order not to upgrade him to first class on his weekly flights between Minnesota and Washington, a decision he acknowledges was influenced by the image he would present to coach-class constituents.

''I ride coach,'' Dayton said. ''I see eyes tracking where I'm sitting. They definitely know what class I'm sitting in. I've seen House members in first class.''

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith and Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said members of Congress receive upgrades because they have earned them through frequent travel, not because of their office. Likewise, they said, frequent flying gives members of Congress access to the same special reservations lines as the airlines' best customers.

In the executive branch, Federal Election Commission employees are among workers who get to keep frequent flier miles, although the government rather than the employee often selects the airline.

FEC Chairman Scott Thomas said he looked into setting up an FEC frequent flier account so the commission could get the benefit of miles earned through employees' official travel, but was told, ''It's an administrative nightmare.''

''It certainly can add up, I know that,'' Thomas said. He said it would be logical to require lawmakers and other federal employees to disclose the miles if they do add up to a substantial benefit - and there was an objective way to calculate the value.

LaHood, the Illinois congressman, said he would not object to publicly disclosing the miles.

Simpson thinks it would be a waste of time for members to report the miles, but said that if failing to do so will expose Congress to ridicule, maybe they should disclose them.

''If it's enough to create the concern in the American people that congresspeople again - again - are looking like boneheads, then why waste time on that one?'' Simpson asked. ''Just disclose it.''

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