Rounds, Thune amongst top in Senate for spending on charter flights

According to reporting by Newsweek, Senator Mike Rounds tops the list of United States Senators when it comes to using taxpayer money for charter flights.
Published: Dec. 12, 2022 at 10:11 AM MST
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PIERRE, S.D. - In about a year, Senators Mike Rounds and John Thune combined to have spent more than $400,000 in charter flight expenses.

That is according to reporting done by Newsweek, which shows that both Senators are in the top 5 amongst their Senate colleagues when it comes to overall spending on charter flights.

“The public is always interested in how their Congress people and Senators are spending their money,” said Newsweek Investigative Reporter Michael Scott Davidson, who wrote the piece. “Every 3 to 6 months those entities put out a report detailing how they are doing that.”

According to the report, Rounds alone spent about $384,029. Thune spent $59,991 over the same period of time, October 2021 to September 2022.

US House members are unable to obtain charter flights without written permission from the House Administration Committee. The same applies to any sort of travel by House members that will cost more than $7,500.

Dusty Johnson, South Dakota’s lone Congressman, flies commercial flights on his commute to and from Washington D.C.

“This shows that the Senate has it’s privileges when it comes to travel, because it is far easier to use charter flights than it is for their House counterparts,” said David Williams, Taxpayers Protection Alliance President. “And these things add up, these expenses add up and that is the problem that taxpayers have to deal with.”

But the commute to and from Washington to Fort Pierre has unique challenges for South Dakota’s junior Senator. The Pierre Regional Airport only offers one flight in and out many days of the week, providing Rounds little options if he wants to maintain his residence in Stanley County and make votes on time.

“There are no commercial flights leaving Pierre that allow Senator Rounds to keep his established Senate schedule,” Rounds’ Communication Director Dezmond Ward said in a statement. “We are aware that Denver Air Connection (Key Lime Air) added an 8:20 AM Monday morning flight in April 2022, which was historically not available. However, this flight would not allow Senator Rounds to maintain his current Senate schedule.”

Additionally, Rounds’ office points to funds it returned to taxpayers from his “annual allowance.” In the fiscal year 2022, Rounds returned $728,657.44 of the $3,791,819 his office was allotted, putting him in the top 20 for doing so amongst US Senators.

By comparison, Thune returned $349,263.47 of the $3,791,819 that his office’s annual allowance, ranking him 62nd in the Senate.

“Senator Thune is committed to traveling to nearly every corner of the state throughout the year to hear from and be responsive to a wide-range of South Dakotans, and he’s always looking for the most effective and efficient way to achieve that goal,” a spokesperson for Thune’s office said Friday.

The only other state with both Senators in the top 5 for charter flight spending was New York. The report details Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer using taxpayer funded charter flights to hop around to different events within their state, that look like campaign events.

For example, Gillibrand flew to Rochester from Syracuse to visit a refugee outreach center, then to Buffalo for a separate event. Both stops could have been driven to within about 90 minutes each.

“There is a real difference when you have the delegation from South Dakota flying to Washington DC on a charter flight, versus the delegation from New York,” explained Williams. “Because not only do you have commercial flights that are more readily available from New York to DC, you have trains and other methods of transportation that can be utilized. So it is different when you compare South Dakota to New York.”

“Our findings show that the spending by the Senators from New York, versus Senator Rounds from South Dakota seem to be very different,” Scott Davidson said. “Senator Rounds seemed to be using the charter flights, as his staff said, to be getting to DC roughly 3 to 4 times a month. While the Senators from New York were making 3 to 4 stops a day in their state... Attending press conferences, speaking publicly about issues they supported, etc.”

Its not the first time in Rounds’ political career that he has been scrutinized for his use of airplanes. During his time as Governor from 2003 to 2011, Rounds came under fire for his use of the state airplane, which he used on a number of occasions to travel to personal events, like family sporting events.

“Senate Rules permit the use of chartered flights if there are “scheduling difficulties with commercial travel, schedule keeping or no commercial flights to or from the arrival/departure city,”” Ward said. “Although this situation requires Senator Rounds to spend more funds on his D.C. commute than his other Senate colleagues spend on their commutes, all of the Senator’s flights are in compliance with the regulations set by the Senate Rules Committee.”