Politics & Policy

Washington’s Jet Set

HHS Secretary Tom Price at a Cabinet meeting in June. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
On those private planes, a little prudence is in order.

The current tempest in Washington’s teapot has to do with the use of private aircraft by a number of Trump administration officials: HHS secretary Tom Price and Treasury boss Steve Mnuchin have charged taxpayers for private-jet service, and Mnuchin’s offense was compounded by the aggressively stupid conspicuous-consumption antics of his D-list actress wife, who likes to advertise her expensive haute couture on social media like some kind of off-brand Kardashian. (EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has also been hit with these stories, but probably not fairly, as Teddy Kupfer argues.)

It’s the perfect populist scandal. Like state dinners and presidential vacations, private-jet travel comes at an expense that might be shocking to ordinary taxpaying Americans but really amounts to approximately nothing in the greater scheme of federal spending, which is dominated by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and national defense. All of the corporate-jet travel undertaken by all federal officials, including the president, doesn’t add up to a day’s spending on Social Security.

But it does offend some Americans’ sense of propriety, and Americans aren’t entirely wrong to be offended. From the success of Mark Leibovich’s This Town and Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class to the election of Donald J. Trump as president of these United States, there is a sense that what really is sticking in the great American craw is not so much a dispute over policy differences — you don’t go to Donald Trump for policy insights — but resentment over the entitlement and arrogance of something Americans long told ourselves we did not have: our ruling class.

They don’t live like us. Every now and then one of them embarrasses his class so spectacularly that he is thrown to the wolves — so long, Anthony Weiner! — but the denizens of the gilded quarters of Washington and New York often seem to fail upward, or at the very least laterally. If you screw up badly in Washington, you end up . . . somewhere else in Washington, making more money as a lobbyist or consultant. At the very worst, you end up teaching a seminar at the Kennedy School, and enjoying such pleasures as Harvard life has to offer. That’s not so bad. You aren’t going to see Sandy Berger or Dick Fuld working at Starbucks, no matter how badly they failed at their jobs. In a sensible world, John Kerry would be a high-school vice principal somewhere in Massachusetts, kept safely away from the levers of power.

Private-jet travel has a special capacity to annoy Americans who endure the expense, hassle, and indignity of commercial-airline travel in the United States. What fools we were, back in 2001, thinking it couldn’t get any worse. Yes, of course, the president can snap his fingers and summon Air Force One to take him off to whatever business the day calls for, and most Americans do not resent that. But with all due respect to the august person of Sonny Perdue, I’m going to want a really, really good explanation if it is the secretary of agriculture jet-setting around. Tom Price taking a private plane between Washington and Philadelphia, only a few hours’ drive away? It is unseemly. Price, who has himself been a public critic of such excesses when they were committed by Democrats, ought to know better.

But it can be even worse when the high and mighty pretend to be regular joes. I once had the very odd experience of sharing an Amtrak car with Joe Biden, who took the train as part of his Everyman shtick. But of course rows and rows of seats were taped off to keep the peons away from the great man, and the car was swarmed with Secret Service agents at every station, at God knows what cost. And, finally, we were all kept waiting on the train until the vice president had cleared the platform, lest we little people think ourselves big enough to walk upon the same ground as Joe Biden. He could have taken a car and saved us all the trouble.

Our elected officials ought to keep in mind that every dollar they spend is ours.

Or he could have just got on the train like a regular human being. When Didier Burkhalter was president of Switzerland, he routinely took a commuter train to work with no bodyguards. No, the president of the United States probably can’t do that, but the secretary of the Treasury probably could. Many European prime ministers share aircraft with other government officials and members of royal families, as does the prime minister of Japan. Tony Blair sometimes flew commercial when he was the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and the Dutch monarch, King Willem-Alexander, took it a step further by serving as a commercial-airline pilot, flying about twice a month on KLM for 20 years. Things are not like that in Washington, where motorcades for relatively minor officials routinely shut down traffic and disrupt public-transit services.

Of course there are times when it makes sense to use private aircraft. And sometimes private airplanes are in fact the most cost-efficient option, especially if you have a large group of officials and staff who are making several stops in a short period of time. Their time is valuable, and we ought not let any populist harrumphing blind us to that fact. But Steve Mnuchin’s visit to Fort Knox with his wife was, so far as the public record can tell us, not a national emergency. It isn’t even entirely clear what pressing national business he was conducting.

Our elected officials ought to be paid reasonably well (and they are) and they ought to have the resources needed to do their work in the most effective manner (which they mostly do). But they also ought to keep in mind that every stick of furniture in their offices, every gallon of avgas they burn, every kilowatt-hour of electricity keeping the lights on in Washington, and every dollar they spend is ours, not theirs, and held in trust. All that private-jet travel may be nickels and dimes in the greater scheme of things, but we might be more confident trusting these men with the big things if they showed a little more prudence with the little ones.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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