In Prague, for instance, traveling American officials can receive up to $416 per day, while the British get about $202.
In Ankara, Turkey, the U.N. per diem rate is less than half of what the U.S. allows.
In New Delhi, India, the latest Business Travel News index calculates a per diem of $212.43. The U.S rate? $400.
In Paris, a U.S government traveler can spend up to $608 daily, whereas someone from the EU is allotted just $322.85.
Officials from Canada, the U.N. and the EU explained in separate statements that their per diem rates seek to adequately reimburse officials during foreign travel.
With the U.S. government funding thousands of trips abroad each year, per diem costs add up. The State Department alone spent $292 million on foreign per diem between 2014 and 2016 for its own employees.
And government inspector general reports suggest that the U.S. government per diem system is ripe for mistakes or abuse.
For example, a 2011 report examining travel vouchers found that, in the sample of travel vouchers it reviewed, “89 percent [of] USAID staff attending conferences collected full per diem even though meals were already furnished by the government."
Another included an analysis of more than a dozen trips on which “lodging expenses exceeded the established per diem rate by up to $188 per night” without documentation of appropriate approval.
The Peace Corps Inspector General noted that some per diem rates haven’t changed substantially since in the 1990s. Even the Smithsonian has grappled with per diem problems.
Wang, the former State Department employee, adds that checks on the system are lacking. “It's like the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said. “Someone should be looking at this more closely.”
The State Department appears to have been aware of concerns about their per diem rates for decades.
In 1990, the Washington Post reported about a State Department Inspector General audit that “concluded that per diem rates were inflated by 13.5 percent and that the government could save $41.6 million a year if it stopped treating public servants like royalty.”
In 2013, a report — also from the State Department Inspector General — focused on the embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, and noted “the current per diem rates of $305 for lodging and $138 for meals and incidentals appear high compared to local prices.”
And, last year, the inspector general found that the government could save millions of dollars if the Office of Allowances changed the way it sets a related cost of living allowance for its employees posted abroad. This is the same office that sets per diem rates — a fact that inspector general spokeswoman Sarah Breen says sparked renewed interest in the topic. An audit of per diem rates is now slated to begin later this year.
Ultimately, though, the inspector general’s recommendations are nonbinding. Final oversight responsibility falls to the Senate and the House of Representatives.
But Congress hasn’t passed notable legislation on this issue since the 1980s, and members of Congress can actually benefit from the current rules. For instance, House Appropriations Committee members collected $869 each for a one-day trip last fall to Belgium, where the maximum per diem listed at the time was $323. (A committee spokeswoman acknowledged the overage, but said that it’s at least partially because the figure includes two nights of lodging due to an early check-in.)
Of roughly a dozen congressional offices contacted for this story, only one agreed to answer questions on the record.
“Naturally, I’m concerned any time I hear questions about waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars or at the State Department,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So, if there’s a problem that requires legislative involvement, Congress should be ready to act.”
The State Department has set foreign per diem rates for U.S. government travelers since 1986. To create its rates, it solicits information from U.S. government posts abroad — embassies and consulates, most notably. The posts then send back a “Hotel and Restaurant Report,” dryly known as form DS-2026.
In general, the seven-page DS-2026 form is supposed to list local hotel and restaurant prices, as well as exchange rates, seasonal variation and any other extenuating circumstances. Security, for example, is sometimes a factor in determining per diem rates. “Luxury accommodations” are expressly prohibited.
Even after a standard rate is set (based on that form), there are ways for a U.S. government traveler to spend more.
For example, the department can set not only higher seasonal rates but also temporary rates to account for exceptional situations (such as the Olympics or the World Economic Forum). The U.S. also has a policy that allows travelers with prior approval and special circumstances — such as VIP delegations or an unexpected dearth of lodging options — to spend up to 300 percent of what’s otherwise the maximum per diem rate. This is presumably how Pruitt was allowed to spend $628.54 one night in Rome (the EPA did not respond to questions about the trip and its travel policies).
The State Department declined multiple requests by the Center for Public Integrity to inspect completed DS-2026s. “They are not classified,” said a spokeswoman in an email. “We just don’t release internal documents to the public.” The State Department has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for the forms, which the Center for Public Integrity submitted in October 2016.
The U.N. also uses data from its various international posts to calculate its rates. Unlike the U.S., though, the U.N. also includes rates for higher tier hotels. But, according to Regina Pawlik, executive secretary of the International Civil Service Commission, which sets the U.N. rates, the costlier hotels can only be used “in exceptional circumstances,” with receipts and prior approval.
Per diems vary in how they are paid out.
In Canada, travelers can be reimbursed for meal and incidental expenses either by lump sum or receipts, whereas hotels must be booked directly through an online government portal. The U.N. generally pays its rates as a lump sum to avoid processing receipts, saving on overhead and processing costs. Under a lump-sum system, if a traveler overspends, he or she is responsible for the difference. But, if they underspend, any money that’s left over goes to their pocket.
The U.S. technically allows both the direct reimbursement and lump-sum methods. Most commonly, though, travelers use a hybrid model known as “lodging-plus”, where lodging is paid based on actual expense receipts (up to the maximum set rate), while the meals and incidentals are paid as a lump sum (with any free or included meals deducted).
Some say the U.S. system works well.
“[The rates] seem about right,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland who now works at the Atlantic Council think tank. “[It’s] easier to live with than a receipt for each expense ... which would be complicated and a paperwork mess.”