The scrutiny over what federal employees spend to attend work-related conferences has continued to escalate after a recent salvo of letters to the secretaries of the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services and other agencies.
The letters, from Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he chairs, ask for a detailed accounting of travel spending in connection with 150 conferences. After analyzing “thousands of documents,” the committee concluded that the General Services Administration was hardly alone when, in 2010, it permitted employees to spend an average of $600 per day per employee to attend an over-the-top regional training conference in Las Vegas.
The alleged excesses in travel and conference spending, however, pales in comparison to what is now being routinely spent to support the White House, its staff and the president’s travels, argues former presidential assistant Robert Keith Gray.
“The British spent $57.8 million on its royal family last year. We Americans spent nearly $2 billion housing, transporting, entertaining and staffing our First Family and paying a hefty portion of the president’s campaign expenses,” says Gray.
Gray, (pictured above) who served as Appointments Secretary for President Dwight Eisenhower, and as an advisor to four other U.S. presidents, maintains he is the last to suggest that the nation’s commander in chief shouldn’t enjoy the full protection and support required by the U.S. presidency.
But Gray raises sobering questions in a new book, “Presidential Perks Gone Royal,” about the stunning, unchecked growth in White House spending, contending that the “uncontrolled and unregulated abuse of presidential privilege to the tunes of billions of taxpayer dollars” has gone too far.
Does the president and his staff, according to records gathered by Gray, really need:
- The exclusive use of 35 helicopters, with 28 more on order, and 25 limousines?
- The private use of the $650 million Air Force One, at an operating cost of $187,757 per hour? (The Defense Department budgets $200 million annually for Air Force One, according to Gray.)
- 43 czars (compared to eight during the Clinton Administration and 28 during the Bush Administration)? Or 469 professionals paid at the rate of “assistant presidents” ($170,000 a year or more)?
Of course, given Congress’s reputation for holding up dozens of presidential appointments for months at a time, it might be hard to fault the White House for its creative approach to staffing.
And Gray makes clear the current administration is hardly alone in seizing the perks that come with the Office of the President. Among the many anecdotes he cites in his book is the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly financed a White House pool with donations from the March of Dimes to treat his polio.
But Gray, who later became a well-know lobbyist and worldwide chairman of Hill and Knowlton, clearly contends the perks have gone too far. He notes, for instance, how the White House staff has grown from 285 during the Truman years and 375 during the Kennedy era to more than 1,200 in the first two years of the Obama Administration.
Gray makes his strongest case, however, that the president’s ability to campaign while in office and his family’s travel, all at taxpayer expense, borders on an abuse of privilege.
Gray constructs a typical re-election trip to New Orleans, involving 10 staff members: The hour and 40 minute flight would be billed at $9,790 – the cost of first class tickets to New Orleans, paid by the president’s campaign committee to reimburse the U.S. government. The true cost to taxpayers, however, for that flight comes in closer to $271,500 – and that excludes the cost of the plane’s maintenance, the cost of the advance team that precedes him, the motorcade that awaits him and the dozens of other logistical details that a U.S. president now routinely has at his disposal.
Then there are expenses tied to trips by the first lady.
Gray recounts one vacation trip to Marbella, Spain, that caught more than the usual media coverage for having included “40 of her closest friends,” according to a White House spokesman. A Defense Department representative told Gray the cost of operating Air Force Two, a Boeing 757 jumbo jet, came to more than a million dollars.
Where are all these expenses budgeted? Gray’s research concludes that most are “intermixed in the budgets of the National Park Service as well as the Interior and Defense Departments, all of whose secretaries report to the president,” making accountability complicated at best.
Congress apparently has taken little interest in pulling back the curtains on where taxpayers dollars go support the office of the president. The last time Congress asked the Government Accountability Office, its independent investigative arm, to look into White House spending matters dates back to 2000, a GAO spokesperson confirmed. Requests for comments from the White House and Congressman Issa’s office for this article did not receive a response.
In the meantime, Gray makes a number of recommendations for addressing the run-away spending for the POTUS.
His boldest suggestion: Limit future presidents, beginning with the election of 2016, to a single term in office.
“We can debate the number of years,” he said. “My personal recommendation would be six; but …until we limit our chief executives to a single term, we can expect to see the winning of a second term remain a major focus of their first. And we have learned there is no way to keep sitting presidents from assembling and using perks of their office to abet their reelections.”