State Department Travel Spending Challenged

The State Department improperly approved premium class travel for its employees, according to a GAO report.

Two-thirds of the $140 million spent by State Department officials for premium-class travel tickets over a year and a half was not properly authorized or justified, according to a new report from auditors. Senior agency executives improperly approved blanket authorizations for a number of the 32,000 first or business class tickets purchased between April 2003 and September 2004, the Government Accountability Office reported. Those tickets accounted for nearly half of the department’s $286 million in travel expenses during that period.

The report (GAO-06-298) found that subordinates of agency executives, who said they could not challnge the use of first-class travel, signed off on most of the blanket premium-class travel ticket authorizations.

Despite the public’s image of federal employees living large on the taxpayers’ dime, the rules are quite strict. According to the report:

State’s general policy is for its foreign and civil service employees to travel using coach-class accommodations provided by common carriers. However, regulations governing foreign service and civil service travel authorize the use of premium-class travel under specific circumstances. Both foreign service and civil service travel regulations require the agency head or his or her designee to authorize first-class travel in advance. These regulations also require the authorizing official at a post abroad or the executive director of the funding bureau or office domestically to authorize premium-class travel other than first class. Further, in September 2004, the Assistant Secretary of State for Administration sent a memorandum to all State executive directors emphasizing “that it is wrong to authorize premium-class travel on a blanket basis” and “that a separate justification for premium-class travel is required for each trip.” Federal and State travel regulations authorize premium-class accommodation when at least one of the following conditions exists:

    •no space is available in coach-class accommodations,
    •regularly scheduled flights provide only premium-class accommodations,
    •an employee with a disability or special need requires premium-class accommodations,
    •security issues or exceptional circumstances,
    •travel lasts in excess of 14 hours without a rest stop,
    •foreign-carrier coach-class air accommodations are inadequate,
    •overall cost savings, such as when a premium-class ticket is less expensive than a coach-class ticket or in consideration of other economic factors,
    •transportation costs are paid in full through agency acceptance of payment from a nonfederal source, or
    •required because of agency mission (e.g., courier).The regulations also allow for the traveler to upgrade to premium-class accommodations, at the traveler’s expense or by using frequent traveler benefits, but the upgrade cannot be charged to the centrally billed account.

Frankly, it strikes me as absurd that members of the Senior Executive Service, the equivalent of military generals and admirals, are not automatically entitled to fly business class or first class. Even low level executives of most large private firms have that luxury. But rules are rules.

More seriously, though, GAO found a carelessness in the management of travel funds:

State failed to properly reconcile or dispute over $420,000 in unauthorized charges, which in addition to raising concerns about potential fraud, resulted in State failing to earn over $2 million in rebates intended to reduce the cost of government travel. These problems occurred because State (1) did not have management controls in place to effectively oversee and monitor its centrally billed accounts and the extent of premium-class travel and (2) treats premium-class travel accommodations as a benefit for working for the department.

It should be noted, however, that this is a tiny amount of money in the grand scheme of things. The FY07 budget for the State Department and related agencies is $31.967 Billion and the federal budget is $2.77 Trillion.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Without having the specifics of the investigation, I suspect that this travel originated–for the most part–out of Washington. Embassies are very particular with their budgets.

    An exacerbating factor is that travel booking is no longer done by government employees: it’s all contracted out. Contract travel agents don’t always have a firm grasp on what the regulations say, further complicated by the fact that not all regional bureaus follow the regulations in the same way.

    The South Asia Bureau, for example, did not generally authorize Business Class travel for travel exceeding 14 hours, although the regs permitted it. The regs don’t say “must fly Business,” only “may”. So if you were flying, non-stop, DC-to-New Delhi (a 20+ hour trip, including layovers), you had to fly Coach. The Bureau thought the savings more important than the officers comfort or ability to get to work on arrival.

    Regs permit Ambassadors to fly First Class only on their first arrival and last departure from the country to which they are assigned. Otherwise, it’s Coach. Most ADMIN offices have sufficiently good contacts with the airlines, though, to get the Ambassadors comped to First. That, however, is not what the inspection was about.

  2. Greywold says:

    “Even low level executives of most large private firms have that luxury. But rules are rules.”

    That’s the SHAREHOLDER’s dollar, not the taxpayers.
    Besides, in the private sector, there is some accountability (no matter, how little).

    911, WMD in Iraq, the continuing trainwreck FBI, Homeland “insecurity”, the above story on the DNI..and on and on…

    I’d put these worthless government pencilneck timeservers in the baggage hold.

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