Nothing says "elite" quite like having a private jet ferry you to work. Unless it's having a government plane shuttle you to a prime viewing spot for the solar eclipse. Or summoning an Air Force jet to fly you and your new wife to Europe for your honeymoon.
Evidently, the utter contempt that candidate Donald Trump expressed for the ruling Washington elite does not extend to those he picked to lead his administration.
According to Politico, Tom Price, President Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services, has chartered jets at taxpayer expense at least two dozen times since May to attend conferences, tour healthcare facilities and conduct other official business. Politico estimated that cost at more than $300,000, easily 10 or 20 times what it would have cost Price to take commercial flights — as previous HHS secretaries typically did.
The explanation from HHS? Sometimes it's not "feasible" for Price to fly commercial. Hey, he's a busy guy. Places to go, people to see, things to do — just like countless U.S. executives who still manage to rely on commercial flights.
The revelations about Price came on the heels of a report by ABC News that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had sought an Air Force jet to take him and his new wife, Scottish actress Louise Linton, to Edinburgh, Paris and Milan in August for their honeymoon. The rationale for the request was that he needed to be able to communicate securely with the White House around the clock.
It's reassuring to think that Trump would consult Mnuchin, who has a firmer grip on economics and global finance than the president, before launching a trade war with China, say, or opposing an increase in the debt ceiling. But the idea that taxpayers would have to shell out roughly $25,000 per hour of transportation from the Air Force to make sure Mnuchin could be reached confidentially in some of Europe's great cities is risible.
Happily, Mnuchin's office dropped the request. But after returning from his honeymoon, Mnuchin grabbed an Air Force jet for a trip with Linton to Ft. Knox, which just happened to put the lovebirds a few counties outside the path of the total solar eclipse. Treasury Department officials said the trip, which also included his appearance at an event with Kentucky's senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was official business, and that Mnuchin would reimburse the government for Linton's travel. Nevertheless, the department's inspector general is investigating "all requests for and use of government aircraft by the secretary." Party pooper.
Members of President Trump's Cabinet clearly are no strangers to the luxe life, given that most of the ones who aren't retired generals are comfortably ensconced in the 1%. But public service is supposed to involve a measure of sacrifice. Every dime spent by a government employee comes at the expense of the rest of us, so frugality ought to be the order of the day.
Granted, there's a long history of government officials abusing the perquisites of office, particularly the ones that can get them quickly from point A to point B. For example, President Clinton fired a White House aide in 1994 for using Marine One, the presidential helicopter, to go golfing in Maryland. Presidents have regularly had to clamp down on appointees using government limousines and aircraft for personal trips with friends and family.
Still, considering that Trump won office in part by excoriating Washington for ignoring the needs of the working class, it behooves the millionaires and billionaires populating his Cabinet not to act as if they're entitled to the sort of pampering they enjoyed in the private sector. Nor does it play well in the cheap seats to needlessly run up the taxpayer's tab while crusading to slash health insurance for lower-income Americans and cut taxes for high rollers.
At least Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has the sense to raid her own treasury, not ours, in order to fly like an empress. It turns out she's so rich she doesn't need taxpayer subsidies to avoid the hoi polloi on crummy commercial flights. The Associated Press reported Thursday that DeVos flies in her own plane to visit schools around the country, covering all her own expenses — including food and lodging. "Secretary DeVos accepted her position to serve the public and is fully committed to being a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars." said department spokeswoman Liz Hill.
Perhaps DeVos can offer a quick lesson on the point to Price and Mnuchin. Or she could let them borrow her plane.