NAIROBI, Kenya — The African journeys of Sen. Barack Obama are paid for by U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills for hotels, food, ground transportation, commercial plane rides, military aircraft put at his disposal and Navy escorts who accompany him wherever he goes.
The unusual amount of publicity surrounding Obama’s trip to South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti and Chad has raised a number of questions from readers about how all this travel is financed.
Congressional international travel is routine. There are two ways most of the trips are paid for: by taxpayers on trips that are considered official House or Senate business and by private interests, be they corporations, trade associations, nonprofits or academic institutions.
Members of Congress have to disclose the sponsors of private trips and the costs for which they have been reimbursed. Earlier this year, in the wake of scandals over privately funded travel, the House and Senate briefly considered a ban in the context of lobbying and ethics reform legislation. House GOP leaders installed a temporary private travel ban to get them through the November elections.
Obama is on official government business. Here’s a primer on how it works:
Obama is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He applied for and received approval for the trip from the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar.
Lugar wrote the Department of Defense and the State Department asking them to provide support for the travel. In congressional parlance, this type of trip is called a CODEL — short for congressional delegation.
Senate rules allow Obama to bring along at government expense one staffer — and that’s Mark Lippert, his foreign relations adviser.
Federal Election Commission rules allow the use of campaign funds to cover costs of official business not paid for by the government. The costs for Robert Gibbs, who wears two hats as a government and political spokesman for Obama, are paid for by the Obama 2010 campaign fund.
Obama’s wife and two daughters flew from Chicago to Nairobi. Gibbs said Obama is picking up the costs personally.
The State Department has a budget that covers expenses related to congressional travel, including money a U.S. embassy spends to assist the member of Congress in the country. That covers vehicles, travel, security and related expenses.
The Defense Department then authorizes the military to provide support and escort services. For CODEL OBAMA (the official name of this congressional trip), that includes the use of Army aircraft and the services of two Navy officers, Lt. Devere J. Crooks and Cmdr. Douglas Edson, who help coordinate the visit.
In addition, Obama invited a two-star Air Force general who is an African expert to accompany him.
The Swahili-speaking major general, Scott Gration, is a native of St. Charles, Ill., and spent much of his youth in Africa. His parents live in Wheaton and his father is a retired professor at Wheaton College.
Obama flew to Cape Town, South Africa, on a KLM flight with Lippert and Gibbs. The Senate allows business class travel, which on some airlines, such as KLM, is really first class.
Gration and the Navy officers, operating under more spartan Defense Department guidelines, flew in coach.