Congress wants to spend $550 million for new jets for itself
(WSJ) Bipartisan opposition is emerging in the Senate to a plan by House lawmakers to spend $550 million for additional passenger jets for senior government officials.
The resistance to buying eight Gulfstream and Boeing planes comes as members of both chambers of Congress embark on the busiest month of the year for official overseas travel. The plan to upgrade the fleet of government jets, which was included in a broader defense-funding bill, has also sparked criticism from the Pentagon, which has said it doesn’t need half of the new jets.
“The whole thing kind of makes me sick to my stomach,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) in an interview Sunday. “It is evidence that some of the cynicism about Washington is well placed — that people get out of touch and they spend money like it’s Monopoly money.”
Several other senators said they share the concerns and will work to oppose the funding for the jets when the legislation is taken up by the Senate in September, including Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.,) Jack Reed (D., R.I.), Richard Burr (R., N.C.), Christopher Bond (R., Mo.) and John Thune (R., S.D.).
The funding for new planes is “a classic example of Congress being out of touch with the realities of deficit spending,” said Mr. Thune.
The Obama administration had sought $220 million to buy four passenger jets, including two that are currently being leased by the Air Force, to replace a fleet of older planes. Before leaving town for the August break, House lawmakers doubled the aircraft order to eight, at a total cost of $550 million.
Mrs. McCaskill said she was lobbying members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to oppose funding for the planes. She said she has spoken to several senators on the panel who oppose the funding, including Mr. Bond. A spokesman for Mr. Bond confirmed that he “opposed the funds for the jets.”
Several House Republicans Sunday said they are against the purchase, including Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a senior member of a group of House conservatives, also voiced opposition to the House plan.
Lawmakers who support funding for the planes say the move would save the government money down the road because the new planes are less expensive to operate than the older planes, some of which are now grounded.
“The key here is not whether or not planes will be bought, it’s when planes will be bought,” said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that approved the spending. He has said the planes are predominately used by the military, with roughly 15% of the Air Force’s passenger flights dedicated to congressional travel.
The tension over the jets is erupting just as lawmakers embark on the high season for government travel. Traditionally, August is the busiest travel period of the year, since Congress usually recesses for a month. Since 1995, House lawmakers have disclosed a total of $6.2 million in travel expenses for all the months of August, according to a Wall Street Journal computer-assisted analysis of 60,000 travel records.
While some legislators take issue with the pricey new aircraft that would ferry officials around, they still see merit in the trips themselves. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have publicly defended their far-flung forays, which they say strengthens relations with foreign leaders, gives them a first-hand look at how U.S. funds are being spent overseas and allows them to speak directly with battlefield commanders and troops.
The day after the House began its summer holiday, Mr. Boehner, the House Republican leader, and five other lawmakers departed for a two-week trip around the globe. They were Reps. David Camp of Michigan, the senior Republican on the Ways and Means Committee; Dan Boren (D., Okla.); Jo Bonner (R., Ala.); Tom Latham (R., Iowa); and Greg Walden (R., Ore.), according to a travel document reviewed by the Journal and an aide to one member.
The goal of the trip, which will include stops in Germany, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, was to discuss issues surrounding the global economic crisis and national security with government and private-sector officials in those countries. At least some of the lawmakers took their spouses, which they are allowed to do under House rules for “protocol” purposes.
After visiting Asia, the delegation is scheduled to fly to Vancouver before returning to Washington in mid-August, according to the travel document and the aide.
This month, Mr. McCain is scheduled to leave with a group of senators for a weeklong trip to Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iceland. A spokeswoman for Sen. McCain didn’t respond to calls or emails for comment about the trip.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) and other senators and their spouses are planning to travel to the U.K. for the week before the Senate reconvenes after Labor Day. The purpose of the trip, according to a spokeswoman for Sen. Gregg, is an annual meeting with members of the British Parliament.