Consternation runs deep among the Washington elite as repeated predictions of Donald Trump’s inevitable decline fall into the overflowing dustbin of punditry proven wrong. Senator Ted Cruz consistently polls second, attracting voters tired of the status quo and Washington’s deal-making culture. The Republican establishment isn’t the only one facing an insurrection. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was once seen as a fringe candidate but juxtaposed next to Sen. Hillary Clinton — the consummate Washington insider — many Democrats see the old socialist as a breath of fresh air.
Even if an establishment candidate like Clinton, Governor Jeb Bush, or Senator Marco Rubio wins, they would be foolish to put the campaign of 2016 behind them. What the United States is witnessing is very much a result against a political class with whom both Democrats and Republicans, not to mention ordinary apolitical citizens, are fed up. Whoever occupies the Oval Office next should pop the bubble of perks and privilege in which so many recent president and other politicians live and work.
Various media outlets have done a public service by exposing the cost of travel for administration officials like Vice President Joseph Biden. While Biden has cultivated an image as the Amtrak vice president, the reality is the Biden prefers to fly. His weekend flights between Washington and his hometown in Delaware cost taxpayers upwards of $1 million. A night in Paris and another night in London cost taxpayers an additional $1 million. He spent another $665,000 for a hotel in Moscow. And the list goes on, even after Biden tries to quash the release of his expenses. The president’s expenses are even more excessive. Taxpayers are on the hook for more than $40 million for vacations for President Obama and Biden. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails show that she chose countries to visit in order to check them off a list, not because they were crucial to American national security and statecraft.
Perhaps Obama and Biden and, frankly, all their recent predecessors believe that is the price of security or just a necessary expense for transportation. Let’s put aside excessive presidential security for a moment or the notion that the best way to protect the president would be to keep him in the White House. Many Americans take jobs in other cities. When they do, they recognize they need to move to where the job is. The idea that anyone outside of Congress should be able to work in Washington and commute back home is preposterous, and yet that’s just what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did at taxpayer expense (to California) as did several top Internal Revenue Service commissioners. If someone wants to accept a vice presidential, defense secretary, or senior civil service appointment, they should be prepared to pack up and move. If they are enterprising, they might rent out their home, like thousands of Foreign Service officers or those in the military do.
When Department of Defense personnel — and presumably others — seek to travel, they must justify that they could not meet their mission goals via a secure video teleconference (SVTC). Increasingly, senior executives — deputies, deputy assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, etc. — simply violate this because they want to travel. Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus has become infamous in the Navy in an era of budget cuts with his profligate and often unnecessary travel. Traveling might be fun for some people, but just as the government abandoned snail mail and couriers, in many cases, in favor of email, so too should video teleconferencing replace the majority of travel.
The reason for such high travel expenses for the president, vice president, and many lesser figures is that they bring large and often unnecessary entourages with them. A couple years ago, I spoke at a conference in London where the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency also delivered a short speech. Several aides, who buzzed around him like flies, tried to pre-screen questions and furiously worked on last minute changes. What resulted was not only a disappointing, colorless speech, but also a symbol of bloated government and waste given that they were all drawing per diem, staying at luxury hotels, and flying a near or full fare across the Atlantic.
Any official who makes flag officer should be able to craft a speech, however, or perhaps travel with one aide. Society will forgive him or her if they do not sound poetic; if they are competent, they should grasp the material in their portfolio and be able to articulate it clearly. If they cannot, then perhaps they did not merit their promotion. Likewise, during Obama’s first term, Ellen Tauscher not only hired a journalist to act as a press aide to accompany her on foreign travel so that she could promote herself, but she refused to remove people from her distribution list, all constructed and managed at public expense. If every undersecretary hires an aide at $90-$100,000 per year, and then puts him or her in a position where they receive several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of free travel and hotels, it adds up and represents massive waste.
Simply put, no former congressman needs assistance at self-promotion, especially on the taxpayer’s dime. Nor should individual diplomats have their own press shop when the State Department maintains its own. The U.S. government could work with half the staff. Career civil servants might complain about being short-staffed amidst a growing workload, but the answer to that is to eliminate redundant procedures. Country clearance, for example, should be eliminated for U.S. personnel traveling to much of the industrialized world, and the notion of a five-month security review for a 700-word essay written entirely with unclassified sources is simply silly.
It’s always possible to add more security, but it’s not necessarily wise to do so. Certainly, the Secret Service should secure the president. Although the notion of taking out whole floors and wings of a hotel is particularly obnoxious when the president might just as easily — if not with as much luxury — stay in an embassy which is already protected. Last week, returning home from a media appearance, I was stopped outside the Naval Observatory for several minutes in the middle of rush-hour as the police blocked off the streets in all directions in anticipation of the Vice President’s motorcade departing. It never did, and, eventually, the secret service allowed traffic to again flow, although the residual backup remained. But, given that the vice president holds so little constitutional importance, the notion that he should have such a large motorcade and can disrupt rush hour is somewhat excessive. Three cars would certainly suffice. Better yet, if he would ride in an unmarked car, he wouldn’t attract the attention that a convoy attracts, with closed streets alerting anyone will bad motives that a high-value target will soon pass. Then there’s the simple fact that the vice president can easily avoid rush hour by leaving earlier or staying later.
Perks flow downward. In any department, most of the decisions are taken by at most a dozen people while everyone else just spins in the wheels, hoping to be called upon. Despite this hard truth, many officials measure their worth by the number of meetings that they attend. The number of cars and drivers provided to senior officials, either to drive them during a commute or to shuttle them to meetings can be shocking, especially if the expense of that perk is tallied. The logic is that senior officials can work on their way to and from the office. The reality, however, is that if they attended a few fewer meetings and simply received a read-out, they would have time to finish their own paperwork while in the office. Nor does the ‘I need to work in the car’ really make much sense when, in theory, these officials can’t remove classified papers from the office. To ease reading the Washington Post shouldn’t make necessary the hiring of a limousine service.
Then there’s parking. I used to commute by train from northern Virginia into Washington but, about a decade ago, the price of parking at the local metro station rose so much that it simply made more sense financially and for convenience to drive into town. Still, a parking garage for years took a good chunk of my income. That is just the price of doing business in Washington, that is, unless one is lucky enough to work for Congress. Representatives and senators, not to mentions thousands of staff, receive free parking. If there’s one group of people that should not be insulated from the realities (and expenses) of daily life, it is the representatives of the people and those supporting them. Being in government shouldn’t be about being the exception; it should be about living the norm and making the compromises other citizens must make. If all the Congress-only lots were transformed into pay parking, not only might congressmen and their staff begin supporting public transportation, but private companies might also turn a nice profit, injecting more capital into the capital.
Other privileges are just annoying. I have a landline telephone for the sole purpose of conducting radio interviews from home, and I unplug it whenever it is not in use as a defense against telemarketers, even though I am on the do-not-call registry. Yet politicians have carved out exceptions for their own robocalls which, regardless of party are always annoying and always unwelcome. As my representative runs for the U.S. Senate, his campaign thinks nothing of adding random people — myself included — to a robocall list that would land most non-politicians with fines and other penalties. I might get annoyed when a live radio interview is interrupted by Representative Chris Van Hollen causing a repeated call-waiting beep in my ear, and no politician ingratiates himself or herself to constituents by interrupting their dinners. It’s arrogance that spans parties.
The list could go on for paragraphs more, but the point is clear: Privileges which politicians bestow themselves are largely unwarranted and corrosive to the general American view of their elected leaders. It’s time for Washington elites to listen to the people. Government service should be one career equal to many and not artificially rewarded with a pedestal of privilege.