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August equals travel for Congress

For members of Congress, the month of August is often paired with a second word -- travel.

In a retail politics state like South Dakota, the recess means the three-member delegation roams the state talking face-to-face with voters.

A Daily Republic analysis of travel spending shows the state's two senators spend more traveling within South Dakota than they do traveling back and forth from the Rushmore State to the Beltway. The state's lone representative, meanwhile, spends more traveling to and from Washington, D.C., than she spends on in-state travel.

Overall, spending on travel accounts for between 1 percent and 3 percent of each delegation member's overall office budget. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., spent 1 percent of his budget paying for his travel, Sen. John Thune spent 1.9 percent and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., spent 2.3 percent.

Noem's higher percentage is attributable to the lower overall budgets for House members. Her office's $1.27 million annual budget compares to the senators' roughly $3 million annual office budgets.

Despite its small chunk of the overall budget, the travel serves a vital role, said members of the delegation.

"Traveling to South Dakota communities and meeting South Dakotans is an integral part of my job as U.S. senator," said Johnson. "Whether it is talking to ag producers, community banks, Social Security recipients and other constituents or touring flood damage, these interactions provide valuable guidance for my work in Washington."

Noem agrees, noting the unique situation she has as an at-large House member representing an entire state.

"As one of just seven members of the House whose district is comprised of their entire state, I make it a priority to travel the state frequently to meet with folks in their communities and hear their concerns," Noem said.

Thune expressed a similar opinion.

"As an elected official, I have always felt that it is important to get out and talk to the people that elected me," he said. "There is no substitute for getting out and meeting with people and seeing first hand what is happening across South Dakota."

Here's a look at some travel details from the most recent expense reports.

• Thune: Of $38,976 to pay for his travel over six months, 72 percent, $27,959, was spent traveling in-state.

• Johnson: Of $17,289 to pay for his travel over six months, 90 percent, $15,616, was spent traveling in-state.

• Noem: Of $17,929 to pay for her travel over three months, 39 percent, $6,968, was spent traveling in-state.

Two factors contribute to Noem spending more traveling back and forth to Washington. First, she comes home "every single weekend," said her chief of staff, Jordan Stoick. Second, she has just one chartered flight in the records analyzed by The Daily Republic, while each senator has several chartered flights. (Read more below about the expense of chartering flights.)

Stoick said that the Noems made a family decision that Kristi would be home on the weekends.

"Kristi comes back every single weekend. She has never spent a weekend in D.C. to my knowledge -- there may have been one when the House was in session," Stoick said. "She and Bryon and the kids decided when they did this that they were going to stay in Hamlin County. She's not a Washington creature."

Noem has three children, a son in middle school, a daughter in high school and another daughter attending the University of Sioux Falls.

As for the senators, records show Johnson took three trips to South Dakota in six months and Thune made a dozen trips back and forth over six months.

Reports differ

The House and Senate reports differ in significant ways. The House reports are issued quarterly, and the Daily Republic analyzed the first quarter of 2013, the most recent report available online.

The Senate reports are issued for six-month periods during fiscal years, which start in October. The Daily Republic analyzed the report covering expenses from October 2012 through March 2013, the most recent available online.

The reports likely do not include all expenses incurred during that time period. Both senators' reports included expenses incurred prior to October 2012, sometimes more than a year prior. The newspaper's analysis does not include those Senate expenses dated before October 2012.

Staffers explained that some of those late amounts were due to late submissions of expenses and some were due to issues with vendors, in particular airlines.

At the same time, the Senate reports include more detail than do House reports. A Senate travel expense entry lists the name of the people traveling, where they went and the date. Corresponding entries show meals and lodging expenses listed as "per diem." The House report lists dates of travel and often the person's name but not information about where anyone traveled. Sometimes, the name is not included and travel is instead attributed to a government credit card as "commercial transportation," "meals" or "lodging." Noem's office provided the additional details so the newspaper's analysis of Noem's travel expense versus her staff's travel includes what was spent in those unattributed entries.

Chartered planes

As South Dakota's members of Congress travel the state, they often charter airplanes to traverse the state's 77,000 square miles. The cost to charter these planes is the primary reason the in-state travel trumps travel back and forth to Washington, D.C.

Charter costs on the reports analyzed by The Daily Republic range from $2,079 to $5,060. Here is a breakdown.

• Sen. Johnson: Five reports of flights chartered through Landmark Aviation, headquartered in Houston, ranging from $2,260 to $3,673, totaling $15,616. By contrast, the report shows three entries for Johnson traveling back and forth from Capitol Hill to South Dakota for a total of $1,672.

• Sen. Thune: Seven reports of flights charted through Charter First of Marshall, Minn., ranging from $2,079 to $4,925, totaling $27,960. By contrast, Thune made 16 trips back and forth to D.C. for a total of $11,017.

• Rep. Noem: One report of flights chartered through Marchand Travel for $5,060. Marchand Travel, located in Watertown, lists Gail Marchand as its registered agent in state records. By contrast, she made several trips back and forth to D.C. for a total of $10,961. (Due to the nature of the House reports, it's not possible to tally the exact number of trips between South Dakota and Washington.)

Staff travel

The congressional offices also spend money on staffers traveling.

Rep. Noem's office spends the most, with $14,310 in staff travel over three months, with another $2,340 in meals and lodging. Noem's staff travel accounts for 40 percent of her office's overall travel while Noem's own travel of $17,929 accounts for 60 percent of that travel.

Sen. Thune's office comes in second, with $13,360 in staff travel over six months and another $4,734 in per diem charges. That is, however, the smallest percentage of staff travel spending. The nearly $39,000 tab for Thune's own travel accounts for 68 percent of his office's total travel spending, while staff travel expenses tally up to 32 percent of the travel budget.

Sen. Johnson's office spends the least, with $12,062 in staff travel over six months, plus another $3,091 in per diem charges over six months. At the same time, Johnson's staff accounts for almost half of the office's travel budget, at 47.4 percent compared to the senator's 52.6 percent.