First a confession: I've never flown on a private jet. I've
never flown on a Gulfstream. Never flown on a private 737 "office in the
So it could be that I am missing the good reasons why the House
padded the $636 billion defense budget by adding two additional C-37
Gulfstreams and two additional C-40s (the military version of a Boeing
737) even though the Department of Defense never requested the planes.
The good news: This week, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee
boss Jack Murtha, D-Pa., announced that the $330 million for the four planes
would be pulled from the bill if the Pentagon still didn't want them.
Credit the Wall Street Journal for reporting earlier that
senators and House members tried to hog the Air Force's cushier fleet
usually used by White House and Pentagon officials during congressional
recesses. Congressional international travel expenses have increased tenfold
since 1995 to more than $12.5 million last year. According to a document
obtained by the right-leaning watchdog organization Judicial Watch, overseas
travel days for House members rose from 550 in 1995 to about 3,000 last
I should note: The administration and the military are
responsible for 85 percent of the fleet's use. Congress books about 15
percent of the planes' use so maybe taxpayers should think of Congress'
international travel not as a perk, but a tip.
Last year, senators were grilling Detroit CEOs for arriving in
Washington in separate private jets to beg for a federal bailout. In a
reversal of fortune, D.C. politicians found themselves squirming in the same
better-than-first-class leather hot seats.
It's not all glamour on Air Taxpayer. Some members of Congress
and their staff are fact-finding in war zones at great personal risk. One
congressional aide told me that when he flew to the Middle East on a C-37,
he had to hold his luggage on his lap.
And yes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, flies home on a
military plane. She should. After 9/11, President Bush determined that the
speaker then Republican Dennis Hastert was vulnerable and should fly
in a military plane for security.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill noted the value of members seeing
"on the ground the facts of war, famine, disease" abroad. And added: "The
speaker has always encouraged members to ensure that foreign travel
undertaken with government funds is done so with the highest ethical
standards and in the most cost-effective manner possible."
The rub: After Kuwait, Germany, Austria and France were the top
recipients of Capitol Hill travel dollars in 2008. This month, 11
congressional delegations will visit Germany.
To avoid incoming criticism, members often fly in group
formation with members of the other party. Say the words "Paris Air
Show," and partisan rancor melts. This year, Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii,
and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., went with four other senators. In 2007,
then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, led an entourage that ran up a $121,000 tab
on the ground.
Democrats have led both houses since January 2007. Is Congress
more ethical? Is Washington spending tax dollars more carefully? Are global
warming's true believers curbing their own emissions?
Sure when they get caught.