Presidents of the United States do not buy discount airfares.
This fact, though hardly surprising, is an endless source of outrage in the nation's capital. During the Clinton administration, the Republicans expressed fury that taxpayers spent $42.8 million, not including security, for President Bill Clinton and his entourage to go to Africa.
Now it's the Democrats' turn to voice shock and dismay. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate how much taxpayers are spending on President Bush's trips around the country for GOP fundraisers.
Figuring out how much presidential trips cost is a murky business. Even when the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, tackles the subject, it must ignore security costs, which are classified. For the public and the press, which have no standing to demand the information from the administration, it's even more difficult.
Still, while waiting for a comprehensive GAO study, it's possible to make a ballpark estimate of the cost of presidential travel. An analysis based on interviews with current and former government officials and calculations of the number and distance of Bush's trips, indicates it has cost roughly $15.7 million for Bush to attend the 59 out-of-town political events he had done this year as of last week.
To be clear, the $15.7 million is a back-of-the-envelope calculation based not on actual travel records, but on the guesswork of those who are or have been involved in presidential travel. Nor was any attempt made to track who pays -- or should pay -- which costs (most trips were a mixture of political and official functions, with the bulk of the cost covered by the government just as it was in 1994 when Clinton pursued a slightly more aggressive political travel schedule).
Still, the estimate provides a rough way to measure the costs and benefits of Bush's political travel. Though he has raised $145 million for the GOP and its candidates this year, according to a CBS News tally, $78.5 million was raised in Washington. That means it cost something on the order of $15.7 million for Bush to raise $66.5 million.
The largest cost is air travel, roughly $8.6 million. A 1999 GAO report put the cost of Air Force One at $34,400 per hour and the cost of the cargo planes typically used for presidential trips at $5,349 and $7,025 per hour. As of last week, Bush had taken 47 distinct trips (most from Andrews Air Force Base but some from Waco, Tex.) to 59 events. Using an estimate of 170 hours of flying time, based on mileage flown, for Air Force One and a single cargo plane, the cost was about $6.9 million. (Some trips use a smaller version of Air Force One, but others require extra cargo planes or an Air Force One backup.)
In addition, Bush's Marine One helicopter costs $5,597 per hour, and a version of a Blackhawk he sometimes uses costs $3,658. The helicopters (at least three at a time) are used to bring Bush to and from Andrews (or another air base) at the start and end of most trips. They also are flown in a small number of trips to meet Bush at the destination end, when urban traffic or long driving distances make a motorcade impractical. Assuming 350 flying hours for all the helicopters involved, the helicopter costs would be $1.7 million.
The cost of the events themselves is relatively straightforward. According to documents and interviews, this ranges from about $20,000 to $50,000 and includes most ground costs such as lighting, stages, backdrops and room rent. Assuming 59 events cost an average of $35,000 apiece, that comes to $2.1 million.
The White House staff cost for travel is relatively small. This includes hotels, meals and rental cars for advance teams and traveling staff, vans for the motorcade and the like. A Bush White House spokeswoman estimated the cost at $29,000 to $56,000 per trip. But other current and former officials said that figure is high and likely includes some of the event cost; these officials put the White House cost at $10,000 to $25,000 per trip. Assuming 59 events at an average cost of $17,500, White House costs are $1 million.
The most nebulous area is the bill for security and military personnel involved in presidential trips. This includes bills for Secret Service, telecommunications, military and medical officers and a variety of others -- most of which are confidential. Those who have been involved in presidential travel recommended using a multiple for this category of "at least" four times the White House staff cost. That estimate, the most uncertain of all, would be $4 million -- bringing the grand total to $15.7 million.
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan neither confirmed nor quibbled with the calculation.
"Presidents have a long tradition of traveling outside of Washington," he said, "and President Bush believes an important part of his job is to get out of the confines of Washington, D.C., and talk directly with the American people."
President Bush says the percentage of judges confirmed by the Senate this term is "way below those confirmed under President Clinton or President Bush or President Reagan." Democrats, who control the Senate, say they have confirmed "a record number of judges."
According to a Brookings Institution analysis, the confirmation rate for the 107th Congress, 61 percent, is lower than the 90 percent Clinton enjoyed in his first two years -- when his own party controlled the Senate. Democrats prefer to point out they have confirmed more judges -- 79 -- than the 69 the GOP Congress confirmed in Clinton's last two years, the 106th Congress. In that Congress, the Senate confirmed 62 percent of Clinton's choices, virtually identical to the current rate.