When President Obama traveled to Florida this week, he sandwiched a partisan speech at Florida Atlantic University between two multimillion-dollar fundraisers for his 2012 campaign, allowing him to label at least part of the trip to a critical battleground state as official business.
While Mr. Obama can rely on Air Force One and other military aircraft at his disposal for official business, federal election laws require his campaign to pay for these presidential perquisites at just a fraction of the cost — the equivalent of a commercial airline ticket — whenever he or other administration officials are using federal government resources for political activity.
Yet, like most of his recent predecessors, Mr. Obama has shown a penchant for piggybacking fundraisers onto official trips, and figuring out the details of how much the Obama campaign must reimburse taxpayers for the mixed trips is complicated and opaque, confounding presidential scholars and even the most experienced federal election law experts.
“Nobody knows how much the travel has to be paid for by either the Democratic National Committee or the president's campaign committee, or how they come up with the data, or how long they have to reimburse it after the travel takes place,” said Brett Kappel, an expert on election law at Arent Fox. “It’s a total mystery — it’s a black box.”
Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and an authority on presidential fundraising and travel, said he has been unable to figure out the cost of presidential campaign travel for Mr. Obama, as well as presidents that preceded him.
“I’ve never been able to find anything concrete, so we never know the bottom-line cost of any presidential trip,” he said.
Despite Mr. Obama’s pledge to run the most transparent administration in history, the White House and the Obama campaign have done little to clarify the situation.
White House and campaign spokesmen repeatedly told The Washington Times they were abiding by all campaign laws in their reimbursements for political travel by the president, vice president and other administration officials, but could not shed any light on how those reimbursement figures are determined and when and where the reimbursements are made.
A search of Obama campaign Federal Election Commission reports turned up less than $5,500 in payments last year to the U.S. Treasury — and those payments did not list the purpose behind them.
“The campaign will follow all rules and pay for the portion of travel that relates to political events, as has been true for previous incumbent presidential candidates,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan.
Mr. Obama’s reliance on a panoply of military aircraft and Secret Service vehicles, including armored limousines, helicopters and Air Force One, is attracting additional scrutiny this year as he crisscrosses the country at a record-setting fundraising pace.
As of March 6, Mr. Obama has participated in 191 fundraisers, already topping the re-election cycle totals of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who held 167 and 173 fundraisers, respectively, according to Mr. Doherty, who has been tracking figures for an upcoming book, “Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.”
In addition, Mr. Obama has deployed Cabinet members and senior aides across the country in aggressive and unprecedented ways. The officials will appear as surrogates at so-called “super PAC” events, as well as campaign and party events. The campaign’s “Speaker Series” programs sells time with White House advisers and Cabinet officials. For $5,000, supporters can buy a “season pass” to see officials when they come to town.
A White House senior official said Cabinet or other administration officials will follow strict rules on what they can discuss on the trail and those who participate in Priorities USA Action or other super PAC fundraising events will not use military aircraft for their travel. Those who are required to use military aircraft for security reasons including the president, vice president, first lady, the defense secretary, secretary of state and homeland security secretary — will not participate in super PAC events at all, according to the White House.
Few estimates exist for the cost of flying the president, vice president and Cabinet and administration officials around the country, but the extensive advance teams, Secret Service agents, vehicles and military and civilian personnel required are not cheap. In 1998, the Air Force estimated the cost of operating Air Force One, a modified Boeing 747, at at least $57,000 an hour.
The president and administration officials also can rely on a fleet of Gulfstream jets and specialized aircraft and crews at Andrews Air Force Base, as well as two expeditionary airlift squadrons set up specifically to deal with the campaign surge in the president’s and other administration officials’ travel.
According to an April 2 Air Force press release, the White House will have at its disposal three C-130s, seven aircrews, 60 maintenance and 10 to 12 operations personnel out of New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware, as well as four C-17s, six aircrews, 60 maintenance personnel and 10 to 12 operations personnel out of another base in Charleston, S.C.
A former George W. BushWhite House official familiar with presidential military aircraft operations said the regular fleet, as well as the standby aircraft, are similar to the number and type Mr. Bush utilized during his time in office.
A 2007 Congressional Research Service report recognizes the secrecy surrounding the cost of presidential political travel and their reimbursements.
“The travel policies of specific administrations concerning the reimbursement of expenses for unofficial travel generally are not publicly available,” the report said.
At least throughout Mr. Bush’s time in office, administrations have followed written guidelines established in 1982 during the Reagan administration, according to the CRS report, guidelines which provide few specifics on billing principles and reimbursement schedules.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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