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Spending $550 million on new jets for Congress? Priceless

August 10, 2009 |  9:52 am

Air Travel

These are the same lawmakers who pummeled Wall Street executives when they "testified" before Congress, excoriating them for taking bonuses while Americans were losing their jobs and their homes amid the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Now, with 14 million Americans still out of work, Congress is seeking $550 million for eight new aircraft that would increase the fleet the Air Force uses to ferry senators and representatives to war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan as well less dangerous locations like London, Paris and the Galapagos.

No question, congressional travel is on the upswing. Overseas trips by lawmakers has increased almost tenfold since 1995. Last year, members of Congress spent $13 million in travel expenses, not counting airfare. So the Obama administration requested $220 million in its budget to buy four passenger jets for congressional use, including two that are currently being leased by the Air Force.

For some reason, the House Appropriations Committee thought that wasn't enough. So just before lawmakers left for August recess, the House doubled the order to eight aircraft, at a cost of $550 million.

With the measure on its way to the Senate, opposition there is mounting.

"The whole thing kind of makes me sick to my stomach," Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill told the Wall Street Journal. "It is evidence that some of the cynicism about Washington is well placed -- that people get out of touch and they spend money like it's Monopoly money."

Republican John McCain, the maverick Arizona senator who has made a career of fighting pork barrel projects, is also said to be opposing the appropriation. He leaves soon with other senators on a week-long trip to Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iceland.

The uproar is partly of their own making. In 2007, with Democrats newly in control of both the Senate and the House, Congress passed S. 1, the "Honest Leadership, Open Government Act." Cracking down on lobbyist gifts and tightening ethics procedures, the bill also created an online, searchable public database of lawmakers' travel and personal financial disclosure forms.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo credit: Getty Images

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