Government Officials and Flights – Abuse of Money and Power?

The dangers of making decisions too quickly, with too little information, or with too much emotion.

The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Tom Price, was forced to resign after revelations that he took charted civilian and military aircraft on trips that were of debatable value to the US taxpayer. The price tag was over $400,000 for the civilian flights and about $500,000 for the military airlift. Since his tenure in office was about eight months (10 February to 29 September 2017), Price spent over $100,000 per month for these flights alone; seemingly an impressive rate of burning taxpayer money. This appears to be prima facie evidence of corruption, or at least rank insensitivity to the needs and resources of the American people.

Price is not the only one. According to the New York Times[1], Secretary Ryan Zinke (Interior), Administrator Scott Pruitt (EPA), Secretary David Shulkin (VA), Secretary Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), and others also garnered criticism for flights from Las Vegas to Europe. These accusations are serious, as public service is a public trust and leaders must act with discretion. Several of these Cabinet members protested that they followed proper procedures, and they may have, but the damage remains. In this time of enormous Federal deficits, and national debts, leaders must not only be squeaky clean; they must appear squeaky clean.

But we the people are responsible to calmly and carefully gather the facts in each case, then make and communicate our own opinions. Since by and large the media gave up the calm and careful approach long ago, we citizens are left to our own resources. Just as we don’t allow people in court to be judged, sentenced, and executed without due consideration of the facts, we must do the same for our elected leaders. They are, after all, just people – other citizens like us to whom we have entrusted powers and resources.

From my limited investigation, I am not sure that any of these trips were irresponsible or an abuse of power. Consider the following:

  1. Civilian charter aircraft are used when an executive has a tight schedule and cannot reasonably travel commercially. Cabinet members are busy people, having many demands on their time. If one has a meeting with the President at 1000 in DC and a meeting with the Governor of California at 1600 in Sacramento, a charter may be the only option.
  2. Highly visible leaders make lots of enemies, both through commission and omission. William McKinley was a popular president who loved meeting with the public. He was widely regarded as a nice man and couldn’t understand why anyone would be angry with him, much less want to kill him. Nonetheless on 6 September 1901, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired the shots that would kill him. Charter aircraft are generally more secure than commercial aircraft.
  3. Trips that may appear to be a boondoggle often have genuine political and government value. Members of Congress and their delegations go on CODEL trips all over the world. The cost is phenomenal, with dozens of people involved, including staffers, security, crew, and military personnel. Yet, these trips are important. Don’t we want leaders who are familiar with the people and places that we trade with, or send our soldiers to?
  4. Military aircraft are a special case. Pilots and crews are required to get around 20 flight hours every month. They can get these flight hours on a bona fide mission (combat, transport, reconnaissance, etc.) or on a training mission (touch and goes, approaches, flight maneuvers, etc.). The cost to run the plane may be $20,000 per month, but it is a sunk cost; taxpayers will pay the same whether the crew is on board alone or whether a Cabinet secretary and a few staffers are sitting in the back. In fact, any active or retired service member and their families can ride for free on a military aircraft if they travel when and where there is space available. Even if the political leader asks for a special flight, it provides worthwhile training for the crew. Most military crews in peacetime complain of getting far too few flight hours, not far too many.
  5. The amount of money involved is very small relative to the overall budget. Many people will not bend over and pick up a penny off the sidewalk – to them the effort is not worth the reward. Real corruption must be rooted out, but we as citizens must ask ourselves if tightening regulations to limit travel in government, and expelling officials, is worth the reward.

Leaders in government often make far less than they could in a comparable civilian job. As a result, good and capable people often do not enter government service. Some that do volunteer get their reputations sullied and lose their effectiveness due to baseless charges. Only the accusation, not the resolution, makes the news.

We as citizens need to investigate allegations of misconduct, or have the appropriate authorities do so. Only when we have calmly and carefully gathered the facts in each case should we make a decision and act on it. We harm ourselves and our Republic if we crucify people for legitimate work, and we should give the benefit of the doubt about what is legitimate.

This is hard work, but America is worth it.

[1] Health Secretary Tom Price Resigns After Drawing Ire for Chartered Flights, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/us/politics/tom-price-trump-hhs.html

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