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Hill Life & People

Senators consider hitting the brakes on ‘runaway train’ of funding requests for trips abroad

By Charelle Evelyn      

The Internal Economy Committee’s steering group will mull over rules around approving trips or returning to past practice of not paying for travel outside New York or Washington.

From left, Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas, Independent Sen. Larry Campbell, Independent Sen. Éric Forest, and Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos were among the Senators who grappled with the issue of setting guidelines for approving Senators’ international travel at a March 1 Senate Internal Economy Committee meeting. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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Senators are considering returning to past practice of denying all exemption requests to their travel-abroad policy because some are worried the wiggle room they’re now showing will send spending down the “rabbit hole.”

The Senate’s long-standing travel policy sets out that international travel to locales other than New York or Washington, D.C., is not eligible for reimbursement. However, Senators can ask for an exception from the Chamber’s Internal Economy, Budgets, and Administration Committee, which handles legal and financial matters.

Prior to a change made in early December, those requests were made quietly, but now Senators wishing to make a Senate-funded international trip outside the rules have to come before the committee and plead their case publicly in addition to the usual written request.

On March 1, after Independent Senator Anne Cools (Toronto Centre-York, Ont.) presented her case to the Internal Economy Committee to have a trip to England paid for (the committee subsequently approved it), Independent Senators Lucie Moncion (Ontario) and Éric Forest (Gulf, Que.) raised concerns over a lack of cost parameters that could be applied to the travel requests.

“I find that [there’s no criteria] strange; considering our history, we might want to think about that,” Sen. Forest said, alluding to the extra scrutiny of Senators’ expenses after a 2015 examination by auditor general Michael Ferguson found 30 Senators claimed about $1-million in expenses that fell outside of the rules between 2011 and 2013.

Independent Senator Larry Campbell (British Columbia), who chairs the Internal Economy Committee, rebutted Sen. Forest’s argument, saying “there is criteria—the criteria is there is no travel.”

He added: “So if there’s travel, you have to come before the committee and justify the travel. That’s basically the criteria, and every Senator has a different reason for wanting to go and brings different expertise and brings back significant knowledge from these trips.”

Senators can take a total of four trips per fiscal year to the United States capital and New York City, to attend United Nations events.

The Senate’s travel policy states that, on occasion, Senators “may also be required to travel to other locations in order to fulfill their parliamentary functions. Decisions to incur travel expenditures will be made with due regard to the need, frequency, cost, and purpose as they relate to a Senator’s parliamentary functions.”

Senators who travel internationally have to table reports on their trips with the committee. Recent reports include a Nov. 26 to Dec. 1 excursion by Independent Senator Kim Pate (Ontario) to Reykjavik, Iceland, to participate in the Women Political Leaders Global Forum and annual summit, which cost $3,998.57, and an April 24 to 26 trip by Independent Senator Rosa Galvez (Bedford, Que.) to Detroit, Mich., for the Great Lakes Economic Forum—at a cost of $1,417.67.

These trips by individual Senators are accounted for separately from those they may take as members of interparliamentary associations. Groups like the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association have their travel budgets decided by a joint committee of Senators and MPs given a yearly allotment from both Chambers.

Sen. Moncion agreed with Sen. Forest, noting her discomfort over the proposed $8,400 airfare request by Sen. Cools, but said it was uncomfortable to have to raise the question while the requesting Senator was still in the committee room.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos (Wellington, Que.), who has served as both Senate Speaker and chair of the Internal Economy Committee, noted that past practice was for the committee to outright deny all requests, and that perhaps a move should be made back in that direction.

“Many of us at [the Internal Economy Steering Committee] for the longest time said once you start opening the door to an exception, it will become a runaway train as it has been in previous years,” Sen. Housakas said. “And we’re at the point right now where it’s about to become a runaway train.”

Existing criteria for international travel used by interparliamentary associations can be adapted to the Senate, said Independent Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain (De la Vallière, Que.), volunteering to do the work.

But having guidelines in place won’t remove the necessity of the Internal Economy Committee to have to approve or deny requests, noted Conservative Senator Scott Tannas (Alberta).

“Because if we lay out criteria and every Senator is now guaranteed if they tick that box they can go around the world, we will spend millions,” he said. “This is the rabbit hole that we’re talking about that our predecessors going back many, many years—probably to the beginning of the age of jet travel—have fought with.”

The matter was referred to Internal Economy’s steering committee, which meets behind closed doors, for further discussion in order to bring back a proposal for the entire Internal Economy Committee to consider.

cevelyn@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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