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How Roman emperors dealt with government officials abusing travel budgets

Catherine Rampell on

WASHINGTON -- At least seven Cabinet-level officials, and a smattering of aides, appear to have abused their access to publicly funded travel. Collectively, these bureaucrats billed taxpayers for millions of dollars worth of private jets, military flights, spousal travel and other questionable expenses.

Yet so far just one of them, former health and human services secretary Tom Price, has been forced to step down.

The White House argues that while Price may have misbehaved, there is plenty of precedent for such extravagant government travel. And the administration is right. Government officials were abusing travel budgets long before President Trump came on the scene.

Like, a really long time before Trump -- we're talking ancient Rome here.

So maybe examining how Roman emperors dealt with the problem can offer insight into how to deal with it now.

During the Roman Empire, government representatives traveling on official business used a state-authorized transportation system, called "vehiculatio." They received special travel passes (called "diplomata," and issued by emperors or governors) that allowed them to requisition carts, horses, food, lodging and guides from provincial populations along their route.

Locals were usually compensated at set rates. But otherwise, "the rules varied from province to province, reinforced or modified over time as governors and emperors saw fit," according to Hunter College classics professor W. Graham Claytor, an expert in Greco-Roman documents.

In practice, this led to a lot of abuse.

Public officials took personal trips disguised as work trips. They spent, and extracted from locals, much more than they really needed. They seemed indifferent to the hardships created by their profligacy and oblivious to more productive uses for the scarce taxpayer resources they were gobbling up.

Sound familiar?

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