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Government bureaucrats like to set up special rules to benefit themselves, and nowhere has that been more evident in the past week than in the reaction to the reports of Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of taxpayer funding to charter private jets for highly questionable “business” travel. Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan of Politico describe the cabinet secretary’s various flights of fancy last Tuesday, September 26, 2017:
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, an exclusive Georgia resort where he and his wife own land, a day and a half before he addressed a group of local doctors at a medical conference that he and his wife have long attended.
The St. Simons Island trip was one of two taxpayer-funded flights on private jets in which Price traveled to places where he owns property, and paired official visits with meetings with longtime colleagues and family members. On June 6, HHS chartered a jet to fly Price to Nashville, Tennessee, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides. Price toured a medicine dispensary and spoke to a local health summit organized by a longtime friend. He also had lunch with his son, an HHS official confirmed.
An HHS official said both the Georgia and Tennessee trips were for official government business and were paid for by the department.
Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics official for President George W. Bush, said Price’s trips may have been legal but were ethically dubious.
“To use a charter flight on something that combines personal and government business, I think it’s highly unprofessional and really inappropriate,” Painter said — especially if personal business represented a disproportionate part of the trip.
We should say “former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price”, because the Secretary resigned on Friday, September 29, 2017.
In between, Price attempted to defuse the controversy by pledging to reimburse the federal government nearly $52,000 toward the cost of the chartered flights, as would be required by a policy that says that when a bureaucrat travels on a military or privately chartered flight paid for by the U.S. government, they are responsible for paying the equivalent of the cost of what a plane ticket on a regular commercial flight would have cost them.
The only problem is that pledged reimbursement doesn’t come anywhere near the full cost to U.S. taxpayers. In Price’s case, the full cost to the U.S. government for his multiple flights combining business and pleasure travel on privately chartered flights exceeded $400,000, which includes the cost of the seats occupied by the department staffers who accompanied him on his jaunts since becoming the HHS secretary, which would not have been incurred if not for Price’s jet-fueled travel ambitions.
For their part, the U.S. Congress is belatedly beginning some oversight of the travel practices of the federal government’s bureaucrats, as Juliet Eiperin of the Washington Post reports:
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Trump on Thursday to impose a governmentwide ban on the use of charter flights by administration officials and to detail “what steps the administration has taken to ensure that Cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold and the spirit and the letter of all laws, regulations, and policies that apply.”
That followed a request Tuesday by the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee that Price and more than 20 other agency heads list all use of private, charter aircraft and government-owned aircraft by political employees since the president’s inauguration.
While late, the oversight by the U.S. Congress is a welcome development, although limiting the review to just political appointees will limit the exposure of the full cost of such practices. As we saw with the General Service Administration’s lavish boondoggle in Las Vegas in 2012 for its employees, such abuses are a recurring theme by bureaucrats behaving badly at all levels of government.