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.

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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