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OPINION - For IRS employees, travel ain't what it used to be

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  In the days when people traveled by train instead of airplanes, everyone knew what an “upper” was. It was the upper birth in a Pullman Standard sleeping car. The bed that folded down from the upper wall, and offered you some level of privacy while you were sleeping thanks to a thick dark-green curtain that was hung from the ceiling.

“Uppers” were the lowest class of sleeping accommodation on an overnight train. The “lower”, which converted to a bed by sliding and folding down the two seats that faced each other, was much preferred. The lower birth was wider and allowed the passenger to look out the window once they put their head down. By comparison, most upper births didn’t have windows and not much head-space between the bed and the car roof. Many people found them claustrophobic.

The Pullman Company priced the upper birth 15-percent cheaper than a lower… and they were almost always empty unless the rest of the train was sold out.

Who was the most common passenger in an upper?  A government employee or a soldier or sailor. Into the 1950s, federal employees were required to travel in uppers – it was the only train accommodation that the U.S. Government would reimburse for when expense reports were submitted. If the employee wanted a lower or a private compartment or drawing room in the sleeping car, they had to pay for it out of their own pockets.

The Baltimore & Ohio and The Pennsylvania were the last railroads to retire their old upper/lower compartment sleeping cars, as others in the railroad industry switched to cars that had separate walled-off roomettes. These were the railroads that served Washington DC, and federal workers were their passengers. It was a time when government workers were considered servants of the people. The federal government was expected to be frugal. There would be public outrage if there were lavish travel expenses.

Look how far we’ve come. Today an inspectors report will detail $50-million of IRS spending for employee conferences. Locations? Resorts and posh hotel ballrooms. Travel? First class airfare. Accommodations? For some, the hotel’s Presidential Suite at $3,500 a night.

Are we outraged? No, not really. We’ve been conditioned to expect waste and excess from our government. And it’s a shame.

Chris Conley
6.4.13