Most Americans pay taxes when they take a spouse along on a business trip at company expense. Not Congress. That’s because some Southland lawmakers and others say a variety of factors make them exempt – including that their spouses are akin to the first lady and perform vital ceremonial functions on every trip. But tax attorneys and experts say the tax code is clear: Politicians should be paying the same taxes as everyone else. And Public Citizen, a D.C.-based taxpayer watchdog group, now has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service calling for an investigation into lawmakers’ exemption claims and challenging Congress to pay back taxes on millions of dollars of privately funded travel. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESurfer attacked by shark near Channel Islands calls rescue a ‘Christmas miracle’“They just assumed that they are not subject to the same taxes as the rest of us,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for the group. “There appears to be a presumption among members of Congress that certain laws don’t apply to them like they apply to the rest of us. “The rest of the world, we all know this is a tax obligation.” The IRS declined to comment last week on Public Citizen’s complaint and would not confirm whether an investigation is under way. But questions over lawmakers’ tax obligations, first reported by the Detroit News, have even prompted some members of Congress to ask the IRS to weigh in. For Southland lawmakers, public records show 13 of the 17 have taken relatives on privately funded trips since 2000, at a total cost of about $440,000. They range from Aspen Institute conferences in Venice, Helsinki and the Grand Cayman Islands to fact-finding missions paid for by Airbus to France and foreign trade groups to Istanbul and Qatar. House ethics rules say such travel is permissible, allowing a spouse or one dependent to accompany a lawmaker and accept transportation and other expenses. The ethics guidelines say nothing, however, about the payment of taxes on spouses’ free trips. Gene Smith, spokeswoman for Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, said that’s because tax issues rest with the IRS. She said the understanding that Berman and many other lawmakers have is that their spouses are exempt from declaring free travel as income. “Just as the president is accompanied by Mrs. Bush, members of Congress are frequently accompanied by their spouses who, like Laura Bush, play an official role. To my knowledge, there has been no ruling by the IRS on this subject,” she said. Berman is among the Southland’s top travelers, having taken 22 trips with his wife, Janis, and four with his daughter Lindsey since 2000. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon has traveled six times with his wife, Patricia, since 2000. McKeon also believes there is no requirement to pay taxes on the travel. “We have gotten guidance from Ethics that we don’t have to,” said McKeon spokesman James Geoffrey. “As far as we know, it was never required. We certainly wouldn’t have an objection if it were required.” Thomas Pfeifer, spokesman for Rep. Elton Gallegly – who last traveled with his wife to Croatia and Turkey in 2004 – said the congressman follows all IRS guidelines but believes declaring spousal travel is not law. Critics, however, say there are flaws in some lawmakers’ reasoning, including that the travel should be exempt because the spouses act as “first ladies.” Holman and others noted the first lady of the United States is considered a de-facto federal employee with a staff, a title and a budget. “She is a representative of the U.S. government. There is a reason why it’s a first lady rather than the first 535 ladies,” he said. Tax attorneys also noted that Congress wrote explicit laws on travel deductions. Under those, a spouse can deduct third-party travel if he or she is also an employee; would otherwise be able to write off the trip; or has a “bona fide” business purpose for being on the trip. “Congress has made this very, very clear. There is no explicit exemption for the first lady on the code either,” said Ted Seto, a tax law professor at Loyola University. “I would be more sympathetic to Congress’ arguments on this if they hadn’t been so specific on the tax law for ordinary human beings,” he said. Patrick McGinnis, a Los Angeles tax attorney who previously served as district counsel for the IRS, as well as others said lawmakers’ spouses may indeed have served a key business function on some or all of the trips. But like anyone else who claims a travel deduction, they would need to document and prove it. But even if documentation is provided, said UCLA tax law professor Steven Bank, the lawmaker should only be able to write off the percentage of the trip during which the spouse provided a business function. If a spouse, for example, attended a morning meeting but played golf for the rest of the day, only a portion of the trip could be deductible. Moreover, where foreign travel is concerned, a spouse’s business function must be more than 25 percent of the travel, or no deduction is allowed at all. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Lakewood, who last traveled with her ex-husband, Mark, in 2004 to India and Cuba, issued a statement through her spokesman that she follows all tax laws, but declined to specifically discuss spousal travel. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, who has traveled with his wife, Caroline, to Puerto Rico and Puerto Vallarta, issued a similar statement. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, who attended a retreat in Puerto Rico and a meeting in New York in 2000 with her husband, Frank, said she gives her accounting firm all of her paperwork, including items from all congressional and privately funded trips. “I assume they’re reporting everything I give them that the feel is reportable,” she said. “If it’s something we need to look into then I say yes, let’s look at it.” Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, and Juanita Millender-McDonald did not return requests for comment. Waxman took 19 trips with his wife, Janet, since 2000; Schiff accepted four with his wife, Eve; and Millender- McDonald took two with her husband, James. Among lawmakers, only Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, a certified public accountant, agreed with tax experts that lawmakers’ spouses must prove their business role on trips if they want to write off the expense. Sherman, who rarely travels and has not taken any trips with a family member, said he does think the IRS should issue clear standards. “Very little guidance is given here,” Sherman said. “I’d like to get guidance from the IRS.” Until then, he said each trip should be treated under the tax code case by case. [email protected] (202) 662-8731160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!