Friday, August 14, 2009
First a confession: I've never flown on a private jet. I've never flown on a Gulfstream. Never flown on a private 737 "office in the sky."
So it could be that I am missing the good reasons why the House padded the $636 billion defense budget by adding two additional C-37 Gulfstreams and two additional C-40s (the military version of a Boeing 737) -- even though the Department of Defense never requested the planes.
The good news: This week, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee boss Jack Murtha, D-Pa., announced that the $330 million for the four planes would be pulled from the bill if the Pentagon still didn't want them.
Credit the Wall Street Journal for reporting earlier that senators and House members tried to hog the Air Force's cushier fleet -- usually used by White House and Pentagon officials -- during congressional recesses. Congressional international travel expenses have increased tenfold since 1995 -- to more than $12.5 million last year. According to a document obtained by the right-leaning watchdog organization Judicial Watch, overseas travel days for House members rose from 550 in 1995 to about 3,000 last year.
I should note: The administration and the military are responsible for 85 percent of the fleet's use. Congress books about 15 percent of the planes' use -- so maybe taxpayers should think of Congress' international travel not as a perk, but a tip.
Last year, senators were grilling Detroit CEOs for arriving in Washington in separate private jets to beg for a federal bailout. In a reversal of fortune, D.C. politicians found themselves squirming in the same better-than-first-class leather hot seats.
It's not all glamour on Air Taxpayer. Some members of Congress and their staff are fact-finding in war zones at great personal risk. One congressional aide told me that when he flew to the Middle East on a C-37, he had to hold his luggage on his lap.
And yes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, flies home on a military plane. She should. After 9/11, President Bush determined that the speaker -- then Republican Dennis Hastert -- was vulnerable and should fly in a military plane for security.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill noted the value of members seeing "on the ground the facts of war, famine, disease" abroad. And added: "The speaker has always encouraged members to ensure that foreign travel undertaken with government funds is done so with the highest ethical standards and in the most cost-effective manner possible."
The rub: After Kuwait, Germany, Austria and France were the top recipients of Capitol Hill travel dollars in 2008. This month, 11 congressional delegations will visit Germany.
To avoid incoming criticism, members often fly in group formation -- with members of the other party. Say the words "Paris Air Show," and partisan rancor melts. This year, Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., went with four other senators. In 2007, then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, led an entourage that ran up a $121,000 tab on the ground.
Democrats have led both houses since January 2007. Is Congress more ethical? Is Washington spending tax dollars more carefully? Are global warming's true believers curbing their own emissions?
Sure -- when they get caught.
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