Do other House members have an Aaron Schock problem?
The recently-resigned Illinois Republican’s accounting problems are now well-documented, but the surprisingly large reimbursements he pocketed for driving his car (which turned out to be owned by his campaign, and possibly driven by others) made us wonder: Are the charges he racked up really that unusual for members of congress?
Mileage reimbursements for members’ official business are paid out of taxpayer dollars, and are different than most spending because they go directly to a representative’s bank account. The government paid 57.5 cents a mile for official travel by car in 2015 (up from 50 cents a mile in 2010). Members can’t charge the costs of their daily commute to the office — whether on Capitol Hill or in their district — to the government. They can, however, get the mileage allowance if they drive from D.C. to their district — though most members prefer to fly commercially.
Some members also get reimbursed for operating their own private planes — the rate for that is $1.29 per mile — or motorcycles. There is no way to tell from House disbursement records what kind of vehicle a member is using.
The most important restriction on mileage reimbursements is that trips cannot be for solely campaign purposes. Driving or flying to a fundraiser or a campaign event can’t be reimbursed, although a lot of official business can look like campaigning. House disclosure documents, however, don’t report the destinations, so it’s impossible to tell where a member went. There’s also not clear guidance on how often reimbursements should be filed; some members’ entire annual mileage reimbursements are given in a single line item at the end of the year.
Our source for this data is the House’s official statement of disbursements, which is published quarterly, and is current through the last quarter of 2014. Expense reports sometimes come in late, so miles traveled during 2014 but not filed yet are not included. And we’ve only included payments made directly to the members themselves and categorized as being for “private auto mileage” or “privately owned vehicle mileage.” Because expenses are sometimes mislabeled it’s possible some of these totals are slightly higher than what we’ve found below.
So how does Aaron Schock stack up?
For 2014, there were twenty members who were reimbursed more than Schock, who filed for about $8,600 in mileage, though several months of reimbursements were missing. The top recipients for 2014 are listed below.
Reimbursements to members for private vehicle mileage in 2014
While a small number of House members billed remarkable amounts for mileage reimbursements, most didn’t. Only 186 members billed for use of their own vehicle at all in 2014, and only twelve members were reimbursed for more than $10,000.
Some Representatives have been quite consistent in billing, which shows up more clearly in the longer-term totals below.
Reimbursements to members for private vehicle mileage from 2010 through 2014
McKinley, who didn’t return a call for comment, has had even higher personal car mileage reimbursements in the past. In 2011 he received more than $24,000 — more than 47,000 miles driven at 51 cents a mile that year. That breaks down to a daily average of 129 miles traveled each and every day — assuming he is driving.
In at least one case, however, the high reimbursements reflect the higher rate, $1.29, paid for operating a private plane. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s 7th District, has been reimbursed for about $88,000 since 2010. His chief of staff, Allison Myhre, explained, “Congressman Peterson often flies his single engine, 1970s model Bonanza airplane to meet constituents in the 7th District, which is one of the larger districts in the country, encompassing 38 counties and more than 35,000 square miles. He also flies it to the Twin Cities to catch his commercial flights to DC and back.” She added that the congressman had been reimbursed a total of $280,000 for travel over his 23 years in office.
While McKinley and Peterson file regular reports on their mileage, others handle this differently. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, filed all of his mileage reimbursements for 2013 during the first quarter of 2014 — a $12,008 line item covering travel from Jan 1., 2013, through Dec. 4 of 2013.
Vince McAllister, a Louisiana Republican who became known as the “Kissing Congressman” after video of him with a married staff member leaked, was first elected in a special election in 2013, and took office in November of that year. By the time he lost his bid for reelection in November of 2014, he still hadn’t filed a single expense reimbursement for using his own vehicle. But reimbursement requests totaling just under $20,000 and dated the 18th, 24th and 31st of December, just days before he left office, brought him to number two on the list for 2014.