Is Bush's Cabinet Flying Too-Friendly Skies?

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As you're lugging your bags through the airport to catch a flight on a commercial airline, this should warm your heart. Since 2001, Bush cabinet secretaries and top agency officials have flown on cushier and costlier private aircraft at least 125 times to over 300 locations. And not surprisingly, a political squabble has broken out between Republicans and Democrats over whether the taxpayers' bill for this more convenient form of travel — over $1.5 million — is justified.

In a letter Wednesday to the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Henry Waxman, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, claims that Bush Administration cabinet officers have "routinely flaunted" the rules governing the use of private planes. Traveling on private planes and helicopters, he complains, always seems to spike around election time. During the 2004 campaign, travel on private aircraft to cities in battleground states "was over four times higher than in non-election years," says Waxman. In October 2004, for example, then Education Secretary Rodney Paige spent $50,290 on private jet travel in three key states — Pennsylvania, Washington and Missouri — to plug George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program.

Federal regulations require that top officials use commercial airlines unless the trip can't be accommodated by a commercial carrier. Travel for speeches, to attend conferences or for routine field inspections doesn't justify a private plane, according to Waxman's reading of the regulations. The $1.5 million spent over five years may not sound like much, but "there's no reason for somebody in the cabinet to use private jets unless it's urgent," says Alex Knott, political editor for the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group. "A lot of people would look at it as a misuse of taxpayer dollars."

The Government Reform Committee got the travel records of 14 federal departments and agencies. Ten of the organizations reported travel by senior officials on chartered or leased planes and helicopters. The most frequent flyer on private aircraft: Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt. From January to June of this year, according to HHS records provided to the committee, he visited more than 90 cities on private jets leased by the Center for Disease Control, at a cost of $726,048.

No comparable information from the Clinton Administration was available. The committee also asked for the travel records from 1996-2000, but only four cabinet departments provided information from that period: Commerce, Energy, Interior and HHS. Their secretaries traveled on private aircraft 25 times at a total cost of $332,310.

All of Secretary Paige's trips "went through appropriate channels and complied with travel guidelines," insists Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman. And Health and Human Service officials bristle at charges Secretary Leavitt was enjoying the friendly skies too much in expensive planes. During the first six months of this year, says spokesperson Christina Pearson, HHS was scrambling to sign up 38 million seniors for the new prescription drug program and Leavitt was racing around the country to educate them on the benefit and solve problems with enrollment, as well as "jump-starting" community programs to prepare for a possible flu pandemic. "The use of leased aircraft," she argues, "was the most effective — and often the only — way to accomplish these important national priorities within the compacted time frame available."

Tom Davis, the Government Reform Committee's G.O.P. chairman, says he "reached different conclusions" from the documents the panel received. According to his reading, the rules allow department secretaries to charter jets for meetings, conferences and speeches, which "are an important part of the job of senior officials at any agency." Davis also pointed out that the documents received from the Bush Administration showed that the cost of private aircraft travel for top officials averaged $12,000 per trip, compared with just over $13,000 per trip for the departments that produced records from the Clinton Administration. "Mr. Waxman instead should be commending the Bush Administration," says Davis, "for reducing the cost per trip of chartered travel by almost 10%."