Q: We’ve seen a lot of high-level Clinton surrogates, including the president, vice president, and first lady, out on the campaign trail. Do taxpayers have to pay the tab for these expensive trips or is the government reimbursed by the Clinton campaign?
Bill Malec, O’Fallon, IL
A: In a perfect world, the answer would be clear-cut: The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign reimburses the government for all expenses related to campaign travel by Barack, Michelle, Joe, et al., according to rules enforced by the Federal Election Commission.
But, as you might guess, anything involving money, rules and politicians is anything but straightforward. In fact, if you ever have insomnia, try wading through the 18 pages of updated regulations on campaign travel that the FEC adopted on Dec. 7, 2009 (www.fec.gov/law/cfr/ej_compilation/2009/notice_2009-27.pdf). It’s as fuzzy as a bushel of peaches in August and would put you to sleep in seconds.
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For brevity’s sake, let’s concentrate mostly on the president’s plane, Air Force One, which often grabs the lion’s share of the criticism. On July 5, for example, Donald Trump earned a quick 40,000 likes for tweeting, “Taxpayers are paying a fortune for the use of Air Force One on the campaign trail by President Obama and Crooked Hillary. A total disgrace!”
But at the risk of being branded a Clinton apologist, let’s look at the numbers, which can be as confusing as the travel rules. News stories love to trumpet the fact that in 2015, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation estimated that it cost $206,377 per hour to fly the Boeing VC-25A (the military version of the 747). Considering how often the plane is being used lately for politicking, I already can see you looking aghast because it would run up a tab in the millions in no time.
But to a certain extent, this figure is terribly misleading. For starters, you’re probably thinking the $206,000 involves only the cost of fuel, pilot salaries, engine wear and other expenses while the plane is in the air — much like the costs you primarily pay for when you fly from here to Los Angeles. Not true. Whether flying or not, the plane has to be maintained, inspected and ready to fly at a moment’s notice, so all of these upkeep items are figured into the cost as well. It’s as if you paid $5,000 a month to store a plane, which you flew once a year on $1,000 worth of fuel. While the actual cost of flying would be $1,000, your cost per flying hour would be $61,000 when you figure in hangar fees.
So as a taxpayer you’re paying for many of these costs regardless of whether Obama is sitting in the Oval Office, attending a G7 summit or appearing at Hillary rallies. Having a plane is a perk of the office. And that’s not all. Any time the plane is used on the campaign trail, those aboard must reimburse the government for another portion of the expenses incurred.
“There are payments made by the (Democratic National Committee) to the federal government any time the president is traveling for political purposes,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters (who were flying about the plane for the first joint Clinton-Obama appearance in July). “Those rules apply both for routine fundraising trips but also when Secretary Clinton is aboard Air Force One.”
But here again those rules are complicated. Rather than splitting that $206,000 tab, the president and anyone else involved in campaigning (including journalists) pay only what it would cost them to charter a commercial plane for themselves alone — and, according to the FEC, the plane “need not be the same size as the government-operated aircraft actually used.” Instead, the rates reportedly are based on what it would cost to hire a smaller and cheaper 737. In addition, the campaigners pay for items on the ground, such as food and lodging that are related to political events. The same rules apply to Biden and Michelle Obama, who fly on smaller and less costly military aircraft. As an example, official paperwork showed that the Clinton campaign reimbursed the government $36,602.99 for that Clinton-Obama trip on July 5 to North Carolina. Of course, the situation is far more complicated when the president mixes business and campaigning on the same trip.
Still, Trump is correct in that taxpayers are picking up a chunk of the bill. Whatever the president is doing, he still has advance teams, armored cars, Secret Service protection, medical staff, etc., which obviously don’t come cheap and which the government pays. If a president had to pay the true costs of campaign travel, he’d never go anywhere for political purposes, Brendan Doherty, an assistant professor in the political science department at the U.S. Naval Academy told the Associated Press in 2012.
But Trump backers might gain some satisfaction in knowing that Obama is paying more than George W. Bush did while campaigning for his re-election. In 2004, political reimbursement rates were much cheaper based on the cost of commercial airfare. Still, during his final campaign, Bush and the Republicans reimbursed the White House more than $1.3 million for “airlift operations,” according to an AP review.
In the end, it’s a bit of a lose-lose situation for any campaigner-in-chief. While it’s all legal, the prez is probably going to be criticized even obeying the rules — and there’s no alternative because he or she cannot use any other aircraft. So if Trump is elected, he probably can look forward to similar attacks in 2020.
Who was the first president to fly on official business? When?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Although “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Matlock” were nominated for a combined 13 Emmy Awards, Andy Griffith had a worse award-winning history than Susan Lucci on “All My Children.” While Lucci finally broke her 18-year Emmyless streak in 1999, Andy Griffith was never even nominated for a personal Emmy. On Griffith’s namesake show, Don Knotts won five awards as best supporting actor and Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) garnered a sixth. Matlock earned four nominations for its music. Griffith had to take solace in that his first show was nominated three times as best comedy.