WASHINGTON — In early June 2004, the political world litigated the fairness of an incumbent president using taxpayer funds to conduct what was ostensibly campaign travel.
At that point in time, President George W. Bush had logged some 68,000 milesaboard Air Force One so far that year. The trips were a mixture of official business and electoral politicking, but the cost of the travel was often discounted. AF1 costs an estimated $179,750 an hour to operate. Bush was paying the equivalent of first class fares for each political traveler.
The two sides bickered, with Democrats arguing that it was an abuse of the system and the White House insisting it was following longstanding tradition and law. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond told the Associated Press that the whole issue was “nonsense.”
“Using federal government assets is unavoidable in terms of having contact with everyday people and it’s a topic that White House lawyers from Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton and now to Bush have all struggled with to make sure that you don’t break the law,” Bond said.
President Barack Obama can now be added to that list. On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee filed a formal complaint, accusing his administration of potentially committing fraud by combining campaign and official business. Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod responded in a conference call that night.
“We are not going to get hot and bothered by RNC stunts and not pursue those avenues to try and get things done for the American people,” he declared.
This round will almost assuredly conclude as the previous one did: with everyone forgetting why they were supposed to be so “hot and bothered” in the first place. But that doesn’t make the topic less relevant to the debate over the thin line between governance and campaigning.
As the Associated Press reported on Thursday morning, Obama is rapidly outpacing Bush in terms of travel expenses. While “the Republican Party reimbursed the White House more than $1.3 million for “airlift operations” in 2004, with six months to go until the 2012 election the Democratic Party has had to pay the White House roughly $1.5 million for similar expenses, which in addition to Air Force One include in-flight services and the use of Marine One.
Those totals suggest that Obama is doing a lot more political travel than Bush. But as the AP reported, there is a qualifier: “Obama is the first president to pay for re-election travel under updated rules adopted by the Federal Election Commission in 2009.” Those rules “require the Obama campaign to pay significantly more than it would have under the old rules.” Instead of paying the cost of first class tickets, the campaign must “reimburse the federal government at a rate based on chartering a 737 aircraft,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Huffington Post.
Republican criticism of the current administration’s travel arrangements extends beyond the price tag. On Thursday morning, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ripped into the president for his most recent speeches. They focused on pushing an extension of student loan interest rates, but they were delivered solely in swing states and, according to Boehner, seemed campaign-themed in tone.
The speeches were “political stunts” that were “beneath the dignity of the White House,” Boehner said. Good government groups didn’t echo the speaker’s rhetoric, but they agreed with the sentiment.
“It is hard to draw an absolute line in these cases,” Mary Boyle, Common Cause’s vice president for communications, told The Huffington Post. “It always happens. But there has to be some kind of common-sense analysis of the content and the venue of what is being discussed. It is clear that these were three swing states that President Obama went to. Claiming no political activity on their agenda certainly invites some of the criticism that they are receiving.”
The administration quibbled with that assessment. Axelrod, for one, noted that Obama had been trying to “move the Congress” on the student loan issue, and he succeeded. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a vast majority of the president’s “official” travel is taking place in swing states. According to CBS’s Mark Knoller, Obama has visited Ohio 20 times, Florida 16 times, Pennsylvania 15 times, Michigan 11 times, and North Carolina 10 times since filing for re-election.
The other line of Republican criticism is that the president is operating within the gray area of the rules: scheduling an official White House event between campaign functions so that taxpayers will cover the full tab. This argument, however, appears to hinge on a misreading of the law.
There are three types of presidential travel. The first is travel to official White House events, the costs of which are covered by the taxpayer. The second is travel to campaign events, for which the taxpayer covers only the difference between the actual price tag of the trip (the operating cost of Air Force One) and the amount that the campaign is required to pay.
“Campaigns have never [covered the full cost],” explained Larry Noble, a longtime campaign finance lawyer in Washington D.C., “because the only other alternative is to say to the president, ‘Charter a plane and don’t have all the security.'”
The third type of travel is the hybrid type, the cost of which is covered according to a pre-determined algorithm. As explained by the Congressional Research Service(emphasis ours):
In the instance of a mixed trip, the amount of the reimbursement for use of government aircraft will be prorated as indicated by the nature of the activity. Prorating the cost of air travel on mixed official/political trips may be accomplished through a formula based on the amount of time actually spent by the President and Vice President in meetings, receptions, rallies and similar activity. Time spent in actual travel, private study, or rest and recreation will not be included in the computation. The formula is as follows: Time spent in official meetings, receptions, etc. + Time spent in political meetings, receptions, rallies = Total activity time. Time spent in official activity ÷ Total activity time = Percentage of trip that is official. Time spent in political activity ÷ Total activity time = Percentage of trip that is political. The percentage figure that represents the political portion of the trip is then multiplied by the amount that would be reimbursed to the government if all of the travel was political. The product of that calculation represents the amount to be reimbursed to the government.
The Obama administration’s interpretation of that rule is as follows: the “official” part of the trip is treated as “official” activity while the campaign-related part is treated as campaign business. The president is restricted in piggybacking on the official leg of the trip. If Obama were to take an “official” trip from the White House to Denver and then attend a fundraiser in Los Angeles, for example, his campaign would have to pay the cost of a trip from D.C. to L.A. and not the cost of a trip from Denver to L.A.
“As was true for past administrations,” said Schultz, “the fact that there is an official event on the schedule doesn’t reduce the travel costs paid by the campaign to the federal government.”