Congress Gets an Upgrade

The Wall Street Journal (Link) (August 7, 2009)

Congress plans to spend $550 million to buy eight jets, a substantial upgrade to the fleet used by federal officials at a time when lawmakers have criticized the use of corporate jets by companies receiving taxpayer funds.

The purchases will help accommodate growing travel demand by congressional officials. The planes augment a fleet of about two dozen passenger jets maintained by the Air Force for lawmakers, administration officials and military chiefs to fly on government trips in the U.S. and abroad.

The congressional shopping list goes beyond what the Air Force had initially requested as part of its annual appropriations. The Pentagon sought to buy one Gulfstream V and one business-class equivalent of a Boeing 737 to replace aging planes. The Defense Department also asked to buy two additional 737s that were being leased.

Lawmakers in the House last week added funds to buy those planes, and plus funds to buy an additional two 737s and two Gulfstream V planes. The purchases must still be approved by the Senate. The Air Force version of the Gulfstream V each costs $66 million, according to the Department of Defense, and the 737s cost about $70 million.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Department of Defense didn't request the additional planes and doesn't need them. "We ask for what we need and only what we need," he told reporters Wednesday. "We've always frowned upon earmarks and additives that are above and beyond what we ask for."

Congress turned harshly critical of companies that fly executives on private jets in the weeks following the government bailout of banks and auto makers last year. General Motors, Chrysler LLC and Citigroup Inc. were among those caught in the cross hairs of angry lawmakers.

The House Appropriations Committee says the new purchases are designed to replace seven aging and more expensive business jets. The net impact is one additional plane owned by the federal government and a substantial increase in its passenger capacity.

Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the changes were part of "Congress's normal oversight responsibility" to make sure "the troops have everything they need."

The 737s, known as C-40s by the military, are designed to be an "office in the sky" for government leaders, according to Air Force documents describing the plane. The plane is configured with all first-class leather seats, worktables, two large galleys for cooking and a "distinguished visitor compartment with sleep accommodations."

Mr. Brachman said Air Force's passenger planes were mostly used by military officials, the White House and other members of the Executive Branch. Over the past five years, 44% of the use of the planes has been for the military, 42% for the administration and 14.5% for members of Congress, Mr. Brachman said.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of congressional records found that foreign travel by members of Congress and aides was increasing. Last year, House members spent about 3,000 days overseas on taxpayer-funded trips, up from about 550 in 1995, according to the Journal's analysis.

Lawmakers disclosed they spent about $13 million traveling the world last year, a tenfold increase since 1995, when travel records first were made available electronically. The travel costs are covered by an unlimited fund created by a three-decade-old law.

This month, for example, 11 separate congressional delegations will swing through Germany. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio is leading five other lawmakers on a trip around the world. Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) is taking a group of senators and their spouses to Europe for three weeks.

A spokesman for Mr. Boehner said he couldn't comment on the trip for security reasons. A spokeswoman for Mr. Shelby said the same.

Most travel must be approved by congressional committees. Once approved, the lawmaker who is leading a delegation can decide whether to fly on a commercial airline or to request a business jet from the Department of Defense.

Lawmakers typically fly on military jets, where members of the Armed Services carry bags and take drink orders. When flying on military jets, lawmakers are permitted to bring along spouses at no cost.

When there are too many requests for military planes, the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader decides who gets to go. Two House employees work full time to organize overseas trips.

There is often a shortage of military planes for use by lawmakers when Congress is in recess, according to emails from 2007 obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch under a Freedom of Information Act Request.

In June 2007, the House's travel coordinator, Kay King, was told that all military planes were booked for the July 4 recess. She replied to the Air Force officer: "This is not good news, and we will have some very disappointed folks, as well as a very upset Speaker."

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Thursday, "The speaker is extraordinarily appreciative of the Department of Defense's efforts to accommodate requests from Congress."

Most of the planes available for lawmaker's travel are based at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., a few miles from Capitol Hill.

The D.C. Air National Guard maintains three 737s and two Gulfstream V planes there. The 89th Airlift Wing operates 18 planes, including two military versions of the Boeing 747 that serve as Air Force One. The Air Force also keeps several more passenger planes at bases in Illinois, Germany and elsewhere.

Most of the planes are painted light blue and white, with "United States of America" painted on the fuselage. The C-40 costs about $5,700-an-hour to fly, according to the Department of Defense. The smaller Gulfstream V, called a C-37 by the military, seats as many as 12 passengers and costs about $3,000 an hour to operate.