WASHINGTON - The White House has billed the federal Office of Family Assistance $210,000 to help pay for five trips in which President Bush promoted welfare reform at official events and made separate fund-raising appearances for GOP candidates.
The White House and Department of Health and Human Services said the spending and the trips were appropriate promotions of administration initiatives. The Clinton administration employed similar billing practices, they said.
money is clearly meant to feed poor children and families, not to feed the president's
Sirota, Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee
Some congressional Democrats criticize the practice, saying agency funds shouldn't be tapped for presidential trips, especially ones that mix official business with partisan politics.
''The president has the right to campaign 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if he wants,'' said Senate majority whip Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. ''But he doesn't have the right to charge these trips to the taxpayers.''
The billing of the Office of Family Assistance came to light when a budget document was anonymously provided to the Washington Post. HHS officials confirmed its accuracy. They said they could not provide the total scope of White House billing to HHS, where the Office of Family Assistance is one of more than 300 programs.
White House officials said they were unable to determine the total scope of billings for White House travel costs to other domestic departments. It is accepted practice for the White House to bill the State Department for foreign travel.
Many of Bush's domestic trips combine official, policy-oriented events with one or two campaign fund-raising events, which nearly always are private. The government and various Republican Party groups share the costs of such trips, using formulas that take into account the amount of time spent on each endeavor.
Republicans criticized President Clinton for similar practices. The House Appropriations Committee's Democratic staff contends Bush is making such trips more frequently. According to their calculations, Clinton in two non-presidential-year elections, 1994 and 1998, took 100 trips. Of those, the committee staff said, 57 were entirely political and 43 were ''mixed,'' triggering a sharing of costs between the government and the Democratic Party. Bush, through early October, has taken 57 domestic trips, of which 48 were mixed, with shared costs, the Democratic committee aides said.
By tapping agencies such as HHS for part of the costs, they said, the president can stay on the campaign trail without socking all the costs to the Republican Party and without exceeding the $1.5 million budgeted for White House domestic travel. They say the practice violates the appropriation process by diverting money Congress earmarked for specific programs and using it to help pay for presidential trips.
Bill Pierce, deputy assistant secretary for media affairs at HHS, said the $210,000 from the Office of Family Assistance helped pay for stages, sound, and other speech-related costs. In addition to the official events in which Bush spoke in favor of welfare reform, there were fund-raisers for such Republicans as Governor Robert Taft of Ohio, Illinois gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan, and Senator Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas.
David Sirota, Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee,
said of the expenditures by the Office of Family Assistance: ''This money is clearly
meant to feed poor children and families, not to feed the president's fund-raising
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