The trouble with “official” and “political” travel is that the White House decides which trip is which kind, and “political” activity can occur on an “official” trip — a tactic known as “piggybacking.” Take the president’s mid-June visit to New York City, where he met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to survey the continuing construction of the new World Trade Center towers before spending the night at a posh fundraiser at the home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker: Because of the first event, the administration was able to categorize the visit as “official” travel.
Brendan Doherty, a political-science professor at the United States Naval Academy, says the convoluted travel laws are part of “the president’s permanent campaign,” a concept that has emerged in the past century. “Even on a fully political trip the taxpayer ends up paying part of the bill,” he laments.
The Congressional Research Service sums up the current travel policy this way:
For security and other reasons, the President, Vice President, and First Lady use military aircraft when they travel. The White House generally categorizes the trips as fulfilling either official or political functions. Often, a trip involves both official and political, or unofficial, activities. When a trip is for an official function, the government pays all costs, including per diem (food and lodging), car rentals, and other incidental expenses. When a trip is for political or unofficial purposes, those involved must pay for their own food and lodging and other related expenses, and they must also reimburse the government with the equivalent of the airfare that they would have paid had they used a commercial airline. When a trip involves both official and political activities, a formula determines the amount to be reimbursed for that part of the trip involving political activities. Whether a trip is for official or political purposes, the Air Force pays all operational and other costs incurred by the use of the aircraft.
The formula requires a determination of the percentage of the trip spent on political activity. The campaign must reimburse the government the portion of the trip that is political. For example, if a trip cost $100,000, and 75 percent of the trip’s time was spent in political activity, then the campaign must reimburse the government $75,000.
The problem is that many activities are not easily distinguishable as one type or the other. And that ambiguity have enabled this administration to campaign to young voters over the past year almost entirely at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Obama campaign has already reimbursed the government for $1.5 million in travel expenses — compared to the Bush campaign’s $1.3 million reimbursement for the entire 2004 cycle. By the end of November 2011, the president had logged more events in battleground states than any of his predecessors, all the while rejecting claims that he has used taxpayer funds to campaign in swing states. Either way, with four months still to go until November, the miles — and the costs — will only grow.
And not just on Air Force One. Generation Opportunity’s research shows that administration officials are effectively acting as campaign surrogates, so one should also ask how much of their activity should actually be considered political. For example, as Republican leaders have pointed out, the Obama administration has sent cabinet secretaries on trips that include fundraising. What does this mean for taxpayers?
The effort involved in sending an administration official on a trip beyond the Beltway is astounding. Pre-trip requirements range from briefings and speechwriting to coordination with a scheduling team and policy staff. Advance staff works alongside a security team to handle the extensive logistics of departure and arrival at any destination, all in coordination with regional and local leaders. Most trips, no matter who the “principal” is, transport eight to twenty people, though the president’s entourage can number in the hundreds — and that does not include the vast numbers of staff who plan the trip, arrive in advance, and participate in the post-trip activities, which range from debriefings to thank-you notes and staff-performance assessments.
The precise costs of presidential travel are a carefully guarded secret. When Michelle Obama took a vacation to Spain in 2010, Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog organization, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about the trip’s cost. Only 18 months and a lawsuit later did they receive records from the U.S. Air Force and the Secret Service — and the latter withheld 78 pages of records. (The cost turned out to be $468,000.)
Details about Bush-administration travel expenses have only recently become public. Since the information on the cost of Obama-administration travel is not available — and likely will not be for several years — it is impossible to calculate how much Team Obama might owe American taxpayers if “official” trips were properly labeled “political.”
As the Congressional Research Service observes, whenever the president flies, the Air Force is on the hook for $179,750 an hour to operate the plane (they budget $200 million a year for that expense alone). The government also foots the bill for the president’s security team and extensive support staff constantly at his side.
If even a small portion of the president’s activity time that is labeled official were redesignated political, the costs — airfare reimbursement, staff salaries, food, lodging, and other related expenses — would be sizable. Were the travel of other administration officials to be similarly redesignated, those costs would easily soar into the millions, as the few figures about Bush-era travel available from the Government Accountability Office suggest.
As for other expenditures, what about the costs to the president’s time and attention? Who’s running Washington? Given so many administration officials on the road, and so many Washington employees spending their time in the pre-trip and post-trip work, Conway finds it hard to believe that they “are taking care of policy and investing in [Capitol] Hill relationships.” An article in Politico in May reported that some senior Democratic legislators have gone months without speaking to the president, despite working on looming issues such as student-loan rates. That may well be because the president — not to mention the secretaries of nearly every major department and dozens of other agency officials — are spending their time on the road campaigning rather than in the office governing.
The research backs that up. There is ample reason to believe that the Obama administration has exploited the murkiness of Federal Elections Committee law, if not directly violated it, to shore up a crumbling key demographic group — all at the taxpayers’ expense. The irony is that, had administration officials devoted their time to developing real solutions to the youth-unemployment crisis, they might not need so much time on the road to hunt for votes, the public coffers would be better off, and we would have a government that spends its time governing.
— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.