Government racks up hefty travel bill

By Freedom Newspapers

As big and costly as the federal government is, we wouldn’t expect that its travel budget would be a pittance. But last year’s total of more than $14 billion is still a shocker.

Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that it’s lower than the 2005 bill by $1.3 billion. But it’s still an obscene amount of money, much of which could probably be put to better uses.

The tally was published by Govexec.com, a Web site specializing in news for government insiders.

A $2 billion reduction in military-related travel spending in 2006 accounted for the “savings” over 2005, according to the site, though the travel budgets of civilian agencies is sharply on the increase.

“Hefty (travel spending) increases were seen at nearly all the largest agencies,” the site reports. “And civilian agencies’ portion of the government travel budget has risen from about a third in 2005 to nearly 50 percent.”

Given the world-wide reach of the U.S. military, it’s not surprising that the Pentagon accounts for $9.1 billion of the total. The Department of Homeland Security had the second largest travel budget in 2006, also not surprisingly, totaling nearly $1.1 billion (up from $124 million the year before). The Justice Department came in third, at $447 million, followed by … well, you take a guess.

The State Department might be a smart bet, given its far-flung mission. But we were surprised to see that the Department of Agriculture comes next, with travel spending of $394 million. Maybe the agency has its people hand deliver all those subsidy checks. Agriculture edged out the Department of Veterans Affairs, which tallied $393 million (a $45 million increase over the previous year) — some of which might be put to better use upgrading facilities or improving patient care. The State Department follows with $366 million.

We won’t walk you through the entire list. But we were surprised that the Department of Interior, with a $231 million total, spent more than the Departments of Commerce and Energy combined.

But even less well-traveled bureaucracies ran up a sizable bill. The Department of Education spent $11 million; Housing and Urban Development, $21 million; and even the Securities and Exchange Commission managed to spend $9 million.

Taxpayers may blanch, but you won’t hear many complaints from airlines, rental car companies or hotel chains. Federal agencies bought $3.3 billion in air tickets in 2006. Rental car companies pocketed $423 million in taxpayer money. And Uncle Sam spent about $2.3 billion on hotel rooms.

The story didn’t dig much deeper, to take a closer look at what all these federal personnel are doing on all these trips, and whether they were a wise and justifiable use of tax money.

Our guess is much of it is for meetings, conferences or visits that are unnecessary, unproductive or could be conducted by conference call. And we think it’s something Congress should be looking into.

Then again, that might raise uncomfortable questions about legislative branch travel spending.