So far there’s not been a lot of coverage of senators’ excessive use of chartered planes charged to the taxpayers. In part, say conservatives, that’s because most of those implicated are Democrats, with a couple high-profile ones up for reelection. USA Today has the rundown:
Last summer, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., embarked on what his office trumpeted as a four-day, 1,000-mile trip across his state, with press releases noting he “woke up early to hit the road,” making stops at a minor league ballpark, a craft brewery and a Roanoke rail yard, among others.
But for several hundred of those miles, Warner was not hitting the road — he was flying a chartered plane at a cost to taxpayers of $8,500.
Warner was one of two dozen U.S. senators who flew taxpayer-funded charter airplanes to, from or around their home state last year at a total cost of just under $1 million, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Senate spending records compiled by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
As the report points out, some of these were from states that are really hard to get around and that are sparsely populated (e.g. Wyoming). But what is the excuse for New York’s two Democratic senators who were the top two frequent charter fliers? They say it was hard to schedule, but in some cases it seems like senators aren’t trying very hard to be economical.
In Virginia, the other Democrat seemed more careful with taxpayer dollars: “Warner’s 1,000-mile trip took him to the far reaches of western Virginia, which is pretty remote territory with no commercial airports. But a month earlier, Virginia’s other U.S. senator, Tim Kaine, made a swing to the same corner of the state by car; his travel cost taxpayers $691. Both Warner and Kaine are Democrats representing the state that is closest to the U.S. Capitol.” The same is true in other states: “In West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin recorded no charter flights in 2013, while fellow Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who announced at the beginning of last year that he would not run for re-election, took $91,000 worth of charter flights.” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) billed the taxpayers more than $47,000; Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) never takes a charter.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) didn’t fare too well. He spent more than $17,000 — albeit in a very big state — while Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) only flies commercial.
It’s no excuse to say that in some cases the frequent fliers are up for reelection, so naturally they travel more. These are supposed to be for official visits, not campaign trips.
So far Ed Gillespie, Warner’s Virginia opponent, is the only one to seize upon it with gusto. He held a media call last week to stress that he’ll be driving and to stress that Warner is the richest guy in the Senate. Gillespie’s staff thinks this is not simply an isolated incident but part of a bigger problem in which Warner said he would be an independent, fiscally prudent senator but did something else. (Gillespie is also hitting Warner for voting for the stimulus plan and for Obamacare.) A number of local media outlets have picked up the story, although it’s not clear if the incident will be featured in ads. (Gillespie’s staff says that a compilation video of Warner’s travels is the most widely shared item on the campaign’s Facebook page.)
Democrats will argue this is small change and point to a number of Republicans on the charter list, although USA Today found that “14 Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent reported charter flights in 2013, but Democrats spent $638,000 of the $920,000 total spent on charters.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee isn’t wading in because there are some Republicans on the list (although from bigger states with scattered populations, such as Wyoming, Texas and the Dakotas). But that won’t stop individual campaigns — including Gillespie’s — from making hay out of the figures.
In and of itself the charter flap isn’t likely to make a difference in any race, but if voters are fed up with elected officials who “go native” in Washington, D.C., and who are out of touch with the concerns of regular people, this is an easily explained and concrete issue. (And remember in 1994, the House banking scandal was used as one of many issues that brought down the Democratic majority, even though some Republicans were involved.) As in 2006 when small scandals (regarding sexual harassment) piled on top of bigger complaints (e.g. earmarks) to shift power from Republicans to Democrats, the charter flight may fall into the category of “when it rains, it pours.” Democrats may have been wiser to suffer through some weather delays and inconveniences of travel, just like the little people do.
UPDATE: And just like that the Gillespie campaign is out with a video.