The White House has billed the federal Office of Family Assistance $210,000 to help pay for five trips in which President Bush promoted welfare reform at official events and made separate fundraising appearances for GOP candidates.
The White House and Department of Health and Human Services said the spending and the trips were appropriate promotions of administration initiatives. The Clinton administration employed similar billing practices, they said.
But some congressional Democrats criticize the practice, saying agency funds shouldn't be tapped for presidential trips, especially ones that mix official business with partisan politics.
"The president has the right to campaign 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if he wants," said Senate Majority Whip Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "But he doesn't have the right to charge these trips to the taxpayers. The Republican National Committee is loaded with money. Let them pay for it. . . . If Clinton did this, then Clinton was wrong. You can't justify thievery because somebody else did it."
The billing of the Office of Family Assistance came to light when a budget document was anonymously provided to The Washington Post. HHS officials confirmed its accuracy. They said they could not provide the total scope of White House billing to all of HHS, where the Office of Family Assistance is one of more than 300 programs.
White House officials said they were unable to determine the total scope of billings for White House travel costs to other domestic departments. It is accepted practice for the White House to bill the State Department for foreign travel.
Many of Bush's domestic trips combine official, policy-oriented events with one or two campaign fundraising events, which nearly always are private. The government and various Republican Party groups share the costs of such trips, using formulas that take into account the amount of time spent on each endeavor.
Republicans criticized President Bill Clinton for similar practices. But the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic staff contends that Bush is making such trips more frequently. According to their calculations, Clinton in two non-presidential year elections, 1994 and 1998, took 100 trips. Of those, 57 were entirely political and 43 were "mixed," triggering a sharing of costs between the government and the Democratic Party. Bush, through early October, has taken 57 domestic trips, of which the overwhelming majority, 48, were "mixed" with shared costs, the Democratic committee aides said.
By tapping agencies such as HHS for part of the costs, they said, the president can stay on the campaign trail without socking all the costs to the Republican Party and without exceeding the $1.5 million budgeted for White House domestic travel. They also say the practice violates the appropriation process by diverting money that Congress earmarked for specific programs and using it to help pay for presidential trips.
David Sirota, Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said of the expenditures by the Office of Family Assistance: "This money is clearly meant to feed poor children and families, not to feed the president's fundraising addiction."
HHS officials found that the Clinton White House billed the entire department $243,862 for 45 presidential events held over four years, 1997 through 2000. Eleven agencies and sections of HHS were involved. The $210,000 billing by the Bush White House covers one project within one agency for six months, officials said.
Bill Pierce, deputy assistant secretary for media affairs at HHS, said the Clinton material may be incomplete and includes only what "the central budget office is aware of." To get the full scope of billings by either Bush or by Clinton, he said, he would have to get detailed records from every agency within the department.
Pierce said the $210,000 from the Office of Family Assistance helped pay for stages, sound and other speech-related costs on the trips. In addition to the official events in which Bush spoke in favor of welfare reform, there were fundraisers for such Republicans as Ohio Gov. Robert Taft, Illinois gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan and Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas.