- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

The White House is racking up hefty bills as President Obama and his aides travel the country on Air Force One to help Democratic candidates raise money, but it’s been very slow in ensuring that taxpayers are reimbursed for the political trips.

Between Jan. 20 and Aug. 31, the White House has recovered $24,000 of the more than $200,000 the Democratic National Committee and party candidates owe the government. By this point in 2008, the Bush administration had already processed more than $360,000 in repayments from the Republican National Committee.

DNC officials say the problem is not on their end - they simply have not been billed.

“It appears as if the Obama administration has not changed or improved any of the poor financial practices of the office that is supposed to send out these bills,” said Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official. “As a result, the taxpayers aren’t being reimbursed in a timely manner, if at all. It would be appropriate to ask, ‘Where’s the change?’”

The White House said there has not been any “undue delay” in billing the party for political trips, but declined to speculate why so little has been recovered to date.

In calculating how much the party must repay when Mr. Obama travels to help Democrats, the administration has adopted the same formula used by prior administrations, even though that formula has long been criticized as a drain on the federal Treasury.

Critics from both parties and independent watchdog groups say the opaque way presidents determine how much to bill political parties or candidates does not come close to covering the actual cost to get the president to an event.

The crux of the problem: deciding what is official business to be paid for by taxpayers and what is purely “political” activity to be paid for by the party.

The flights on Air Force One alone typically cost more than $60,000 an hour, according to congressional reviews. Then there are the litany of other expenses - the transport of the presidential limousine, the aides who travel in his entourage, the Secret Service detail, the hotel and dining tabs.

“Travel by the president is somewhat unique,” said Jan Baran, a veteran campaign finance lawyer. “No candidate could be expected to reimburse the president for the cost of flying on Air Force One or for the cost of lugging secure encrypted communications devices wherever he goes, or for the Secret Service expenses needed to protect him, or for the staff that helps him carry out the demands of his office.”

But how administrations have made those calculations have always been shrouded in mystery. Mr. Baran compared it to the formula for Coca-Cola, and joked that the White House counsel probably keeps it locked in a safe.

Once the party’s share of the bill has been calculated, it falls to the White House to send out bills and collect the money. It’s unclear why the pace of reimbursement has been so slow this year, but the fault does not lie with the party.

The DNC has set aside more than $200,000 in an escrow account to cover the costs incurred for having Mr. Obama appear at such events as a Las Vegas fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Philadelphia event for Sen. Arlen Specter and a Northern Virginia rally for his party’s gubernatorial contender, R. Creigh Deeds.

“Reimbursements from political entities have been received without undue delay,” one White House official said in response to questions.

Mr. Obama’s administration has had a modest year of political travel - he did not attend any out-of-town fundraisers during his first three months in office - but that doesn’t mean it has not been costly. Just one trip, a West Coast swing in May in which the president headlined a DNC fundraiser in Beverly Hills and an event at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for Mr. Reid, is likely to have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills.

The White House is using a Reagan-era formula for deciding how much taxpayers must pay for the political travel. Three years ago, the formula caught the attention of House Democrats, who issued a report that took issue with what they said was the Bush administration’s extensive use of public funds for political travel.

California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, at the time the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said taxpayers were shouldering most of the burden for President Bush’s travel, even though much of it was clearly political in nature.

“The president and vice president can legally participate in campaign and fundraising events for candidates,” Mr. Waxman wrote. “But when they do so, the taxpayer bears most of the cost.”

Using data from publicly available records and press accounts, Mr. Waxman calculated that during the 2002 election season, the president and vice president took political trips costing $6.5 million, of which only a tiny amount $198,000 ? was eventually billed to Republican Party or candidate committees.

Mr. Waxman has since left his post on the oversight panel and declined to wade back into the issue when asked about it Thursday.

“I think it is an issue that needs to be reviewed, but I’m not involved in it,” Mr. Waxman said.

Politicians in both parties have for decades attempted to take issue with the costs borne by taxpayers when the president or his aides hit the campaign trail. Longstanding federal rules typically prohibit federal officials from using taxpayer money to support such activities.

It is for that reason, Mr. Baran said, that the Reagan administration first drew up regulations to help the White House contend with the uneasy balance that would allow the president to freely travel the country to campaign on behalf of the politicians in his party but not force the taxpayers to foot the whole bill.

The formula requires certain elements of a presidential or vice presidential trip to be billed to the political party or to the candidate that is benefiting from it, even if most costs are still shouldered by taxpayers.

The rules “haven’t changed with administrations,” said Obama White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton.

FEC reports have never provided much detail, but this year they have revealed even less. Unlike the situation under Mr. Bush, the Obama-era reports do not even identify which payments from the party covered airfare and which ones were for food or other incidental travel costs.

In response to a request, the DNC clarified that, so far this year, taxpayers have recovered $135.05 for in-flight services, $642.45 for the costs of running the Marine One helicopter, and $23,575.78 in airfare expenses.

Once Mr. Obama took office, the White House adopted the practice of sending the DNC or the political candidate an up-front estimate of how much they would owe.

The Democrats then put that amount in its escrow account. FEC records show that Mr. Deeds paid $14,000 to cover the cost of the president’s recent Marine One helicopter flight into Northern Virginia for a rally and fundraiser. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has paid in $30,000. Mr. Reid has sent in more than $21,000.

How much of that has come back to the White House to refund the taxpayers for those events, though, is impossible to know from the federal reports.

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