A Channel 2 Action News investigation found U.S. senators spending more tax dollars traveling the globe than ever before. Despite fierce budget cuts, congressional records show elected officials are racking up record expenses on flights, food, fuel and sometimes alcohol.
Just after the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss traveled there to visit metro-area troops on the front lines and share Thanksgiving dinner. Documents show one of several overseas trips Chambliss has made since early 2009. The costs of the trips totals more than $38,000.
The same documents show Georgia's other senator, Johnny Isakson, has traveled to Afghanistan, too. He also traveled to Germany, Kenya and Tanzania.
According to the records, Georgia senators aren't alone. Other senators have sipped cocktails at the Eiffel Tower and visited Greece, London and China. Some spent time at the luxurious Conrad Hotel in Brussels, which boasts spa service and an in-house restaurant specializing in shrimp croquettes, king prawns and French apricot tarts.
Channel 2's Scott MacFarlane found it is difficult to get the information. Much of it is only available in a small office on Capitol Hill. He found it on one set of computers in an old-fashioned database. It showed that senators spent at least $10 million on traveling over the past two years.
"This is taxpayer money," said Tom Fitton, of Judicial Watch. "Our members need to be better stewards of it."
The records MacFarlane reviewed didn't include travel expenses racked up when congressional leaders fly on Air Force jets instead of commercial flights. The military often charters special congressional VIP trips overseas. Military sources told MacFarlane those flights can cost $7,000 per hour.
The documents also showed senators are spending big once they arrive at their destination. Receipts showed Bacardi rum, Bailey's Irish Cream and chocolate-covered strawberries.
Former congressional staffer Brad Fitch defended the spending. He said don't let the menu fool anyone -- these trips aren't junkets.
"They're packed with work. You're basically working a 12-hour day when you're on these trips," Fitch said. "Especially in a global economy, we would want our legislators to be well-informed when they're making decisions."
MacFarlane learned there is no budget for senators' overseas travel. Whatever they spend is automatically reimbursed by the U.S. Treasury. No one is in charge of keeping costs under control or deciding if a trip is worthwhile.
Fitch said congressional leaders will eventually cut back traveling to avoid looking hypocritical.
"They are mindful of this and censoring themselves and restricting themselves in many cases," Fitch said.