WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has been spending large amounts on airfare as a congressman, flying first class on dozens of taxpayer-funded flights to his home state. The practice conflicts with the image that Paul portrays as the only presidential candidate serious about cutting federal spending.
Paul flew first class on at least 31 round-trip flights and 12 one-way flights since May 2009 when he was traveling between Washington and his district in Texas, according to a review by The Associated Press of his congressional office expenses. Four other round-trip tickets and two other one-way tickets purchased during the period were eligible for upgrades to first-class after they were bought, but those upgrades would not be documented in the expense records.
Paul, whose distrust of big government is the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, trusts the more expensive government rate for Continental Airlines when buying his tickets. Paul chose not to buy the cheaper economy tickets at a fraction of the price because they aren't refundable or as flexible for scheduling, his congressional staff said.
"We always get him full refundable tickets since the congressional schedule sometimes changes quickly," said Jeff Deist, Paul's chief of staff. Paul might have to pay out of his own pocket for canceled flights in some cases if he didn't buy refundable tickets, Deist said.
But records show that most of the flights for Paul were purchased well in advance and few schedule changes were necessary. Nearly two-thirds of the 49 tickets were purchased at least two weeks in advance, and 42 percent were bought at least three weeks in advance, the AP's review found.
Paul charged taxpayers nearly $52,000 on the more expensive tickets, or $27,621 more than the average Continental airfare for the flights between Washington and Houston, according to the AP's review of his congressional expenses and average airfares compiled by the Department of Transportation.
The more expensive tickets have other benefits as well, including allowing Paul to upgrade to first class when his staff reserves a flight because his frequent government travel gives him membership in an elite class of Continental customers who earn travel perks. Upgrades to first-class with cheaper fares are possible, at times limited to available seats days before the flight. But those upgrades are not guaranteed and some require ticket changes at the airport, according to the airline's frequent flyer rules.
The AP reviewed congressional travel before the Iowa caucuses for the two members of Congress running at the time – Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Bachmann later ended her presidential campaign.
House records show Bachmann, like most other congressional members, also paid the more expensive government rate for airfare. But her staff would not provide access to more detailed expense records that show when and what type of tickets were purchased.
Paul's congressional staff provided access to all expense records requested.
Congressional members don't have to pay the government rate for travel, but most do, including many like Paul and Bachmann who advocate cuts in federal spending.
"You could almost always beat the government rate," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, a federal budget watchdog group. "They need to be walking the walk, and one of the ways they can do that is to be fiscally responsible for how they spend their member office money."
Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, didn't respond to a written request to explain how Paul's use of more expensive airfare, which allows him to fly first class, corresponds with his commitment to cut federal spending. Instead, he sent a statement that started, "No one is more committed to cutting spending than Dr. Paul."
But Paul's congressional travel conflicts with claims in campaign appearances that he's the most frugal and serious deficit hawk in the race.
"The talk you hear in Washington is pure talk, because there is nobody suggesting, the other candidates are not talking about real cuts," Paul said in a speech to supporters last week after his second-place finish in New Hampshire.
He has proposed cutting $1 trillion from the federal budget during his first year as president, and has confronted other candidates in public forums as "big government conservatives."
"You're a big spender, that's all there is to it," Paul told former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania during a GOP debate in New Hampshire.
Paul boasts on his website about declining other congressional perks, such as a pension and all-expense-paid travel "junkets" that other lawmakers take. And he says he regularly returns money from his congressional account to the treasury.
But when it comes to his congressional travel, Paul has opted not to search for cheaper airfares that could mean returning more of his office account to the treasury, which uses any money returned by House or Senate members to help reduce the federal deficit.
Paul paid $51,972 for his government-rate flights between Washington and Houston between May 2009 and March 2011, or more than twice the $24,351 average airfare on Continental for travel between Washington and Houston. The average airfare figure represents the price for all tickets purchased for Continental flights between Washington and Houston, including economy and first-class travel, according to the Transportation Department's Domestic Airline Fares Consumer Report, which collects airfare information for the nation's busiest travel routes.
Paul's staff regularly booked him in first class on flights when tickets were purchased, according to expense records. His office paid between $1,217 and $1,311 for each round-trip flight, compared to the average airfare for that trip ranging from $528 to $760, according to the airline fares consumer report.
The period reviewed by the AP was the most recent period for which complete congressional expense records were available.