During a February trip to New York, where he raised $2 million at a pair of reelection receptions for Gov. George E. Pataki (R), President Bush stopped by the New York Police Department's command-and-control center for a brief tour and to give a 21-minute speech.
That side trip added a patina of government officialdom to the day. It also allowed the White House to bill taxpayers for 54 percent of the hotel rooms, rental cars and other local expenses for setting up the visit.
At a time when we are desperately trying to put every dime we can into securing our country after September 11th, the president needs to explain why he thinks taxpayers should foot the enormous bill for him to gallivant across the country doing $1,000-a-plate dinners with his friends.
David J. Sirota
House Appropriations Committee
And because Bush is always the president -- whether acting as commander in chief or head of the Republican Party -- taxpayers pay the full $57,000-an-hour cost of flying Air Force One regardless of the trip's purpose. The government also pays for most of his entourage and for the military and communications gear and evacuation helicopters that travel ahead of him.
For trips that include fundraising, other costs -- including lighting, rental of a hall, cars and hotel rooms for advance workers -- are apportioned according to how much of the trip was political and how much was official government business. The effect is a deep taxpayer subsidy of presidential political trips, because the parties or candidates pay far less for the total visit than does the government. New York Republicans had to reimburse the government just $5,912 for Bush's politically focused visit in February, while the government paid many times that amount.
The accounting guidelines used by the White House were set in 1982, and Democrats benefited mightily from them during President Bill Clinton's marathon fundraising swings. Now it's the GOP's turn.
The White House and Republican National Committee declined several Washington Post requests for documents on presidential travel costs. But records from the beginning of the Bush administration through February were provided by a government source.
Republican officials defend the practice of transferring some costs of a largely political trip to taxpayers. "Every White House -- Republican and Democratic -- since Ronald Reagan has used the same formula to determine the appropriate costs of political travel," said RNC spokesman Jim Dyke. "We continue to adhere to that formula today."
With his staff intent on using all the levers of his office to help Republican candidates, Bush has bested even Clinton's fundraising pace at the same point in his first term. Bush has taken 28 out-of-town political trips in his first 16 months in office, compared with the 20 that federal records show for Clinton in the corresponding period.
Clinton, for all his fundraising prowess, started somewhat slowly in his presidency, focusing first on winning passage of his economic plan. After the stunning GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, however, he launched a political money-raising blitz and made 33 political stops in the first 16 months of the next election cycle.
Bush's road trips this year have raised more than $27 million for Republican parties and candidates. He also has headlined several Washington fundraisers, including last week's record-setting $33 million dinner benefiting the RNC.
The president's willingness to devote significant time to fundraising while also running a war against terrorism is one of the clearest indicators of the White House's deep involvement in November's congressional elections. Bush, Vice President Cheney and several of their better-known aides -- including Cheney's counselor, Mary Matalin -- leave Washington frequently to lend cachet to hinterland campaign events designed to help Republicans pick up the one seat they need to regain control of the Senate, and to hold the party's slim majority in the House.
At each of Bush's out-of-town political stops this year, the White House has added a welfare forum, an education speech, a fire station visit or some other official event. These appearances seldom produce national news, and often Bush's pep talks at such functions are barely distinguishable from his remarks at the fundraisers that follow.
The accounting formula calls for the White House to calculate how much of a trip's time was devoted to politics and how much to official business. The candidate or state party is billed for its share of the locally incurred costs. The government pays 100 percent of the president's transportation, communications and security costs, regardless of the trip's purpose. Those official expenses are difficult to track because they are divided among Pentagon, Treasury Department and other budgets.
Like previous administrations, the Bush White House schedules trips to states and House districts that the president almost surely would pass over if they didn't have top-priority congressional or gubernatorial campaigns. It's no secret in the White House, or elsewhere, that Bush recently chose South Dakota as the place to discuss agriculture policy because of its sizzling Senate race.
In fact, Bush's itinerary this year is essentially a map of the hottest Senate races, including Missouri, Georgia and Montana.
One senior administration official said each trip's official component, known around the White House as the "policy event," is scheduled first, and then the fundraisers are added. That does not comport with statements from local party officials, who say they know about the fundraisers long before a hall is booked for the official event. Other White House officials said fundraising plans drove the schedules for several recent trips.
Like Clinton, Bush isn't shy about letting candidates use footage and photos of his visits for their campaign commercials. An ad for Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), who hopes to unseat Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), shows a smiling Bush appearing onstage with Ganske during a recent fundraising trip, while the narrator says Ganske "fights alongside President Bush for a stronger national defense."
Ganske said in an interview that he found it appropriate for taxpayers to bear most of the cost of such trips. On the Iowa swing, Bush gave a speech about the economy before dropping by Ganske's fundraising dinner.
"The official event dealt with a major public policy debate -- the wisdom of cutting taxes," Ganske said. "After September 11th, security is very tight for the president. But that's what we as taxpayers must do if we don't want the president to live in a glass bubble in the White House."
Some Democratic candidates have begun making an issue of taxpayer costs for political visits. In South Dakota, where Rep. John Thune (R) is challenging Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, the state Democratic Party argued before a Bush visit that Republicans should pay for the entire trip. The Democrats' argument was ignored.
Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee say the White House has been so aggressive about using travel accounting rules to benefit Republicans that they may challenge the administration during hearings on the treasury-postal appropriations bill, which are expected next month. The administration has requested an increase in the White House travel budget from $1.6 million to $3.8 million. About $1 million is earmarked for Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
"At a time when we are desperately trying to put every dime we can into securing our country after September 11th, the president needs to explain why he thinks taxpayers should foot the enormous bill for him to gallivant across the country doing $1,000-a-plate dinners with his friends," said David J. Sirota, the committee's Democratic spokesman.
Another Democratic strategy is to call attention to the Republican candidates who chided Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for traveling to New York on Air Force One when she was both first lady and a Senate candidate. In 1999, several of this year's Senate hopefuls voted for "the Hillary amendment," which would have required candidates to reimburse the government for the use of official transportation -- including Air Force One -- for campaign purposes.
Democrats say candidates who voted for it should now pay for the privilege when they ride home on Air Force One for a fundraiser, a courtesy Bush often extends and then mentions from the podium as a way of burnishing the candidate's image.
So far, none has volunteered.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company