Barack Obama, Donald Trump, The White House

Limiting Taxpayer-Financed Vacations and Political Junkets

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When I write about politicians in their role as politicians (rather than their policy prescriptions), it’s usually to mock them for venality,corruption, immorality, sleaze, incompetence, or hypocrisy.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Today, I want to plead with them to exercise self-restraint. Some folks may have seen the stories about President Trump using up the Secret Service budget because of all his vacation trips to his various resorts.

There’s nothing illegal about his actions, but I wish Trump (as well as his predecessors and successors) would sometimes pause and think about whether they’re squandering other people’s money.

But since it’s highly unrealistic to expect politicians to have empathy for taxpayers, maybe we need some reforms. Here’s some of what I wrote in a column for Fortune.

…the Secret Service is way over budget because of President Donald Trump’s frequent vacations… It’s easy to zing Trump for being a hypocrite, as he previously complained about the cost and duration of President Barack Obama’s vacations. …But let’s look at this issue from the perspective of taxpayers. Every time the president hops on Air Force One for a weekend getaway at one of his resorts, that involves a major shift of manpower by the Secret Service, along with major outlays for travel, lodging, and other costs. …it’s time to consider some sensible reforms that could limit the agency’s burden on taxpayers.

I came up with a couple of ideas, which could be implemented by attaching conditions to the spending bills that fund the White House and the Secret Service.

…Congress should put an annual limit on expenditures for unofficial White House travel. …the average American gets 10 paid vacation days a year. …Presidents are not average, of course, so they should get taxpayer-financed protection for around four weeks of vacation. Any more than that would still have a Secret Service detail, but the president would have to pick up the incremental expenses… There should also be similar restrictions for the presidential family, especially with regard to overseas business trips. If Trump’s children feel it is necessary to go overseas to sign a deal, then the company at the very least should pay half the cost for Secret Service protection.

In other words, if the President wants to go to one of his golf clubs every weekend, he would always have full protection from the Secret Service, but he would pay for the added expense. It could come from his own pocket, or from his campaign coffers.

I don’t care, so long as there’s a limit on how much taxpayer are hit.

But what if Trump takes more official trips? Wouldn’t that require more money for the Secret Service?

That’s possible, but I also suggested in the article another way to save money that wouldn’t sacrifice security.

Another reasonable reform would be to…protect taxpayers by limiting the number of other administration staffers that go on junkets. …cut in half the number of political advisors, speechwriters, and flunkies that have turned White House trips into costly boondoggles.

The bottom line is that presidential junkets shouldn’t turn into an excuse to have hundreds of non-Secret Service staffers tagging along at high cost.

And I stressed in the article that I’m not picking on Trump.

They would be permanent reforms to address the systemic problem of wasteful spending and administrative bloat in Washington. This problem existed before the current president. And in the absence of reform, it will be an issue with future administrations.

To emphasize this point, here are some excerpts from a 2014 article from the U.K.-based Guardian (h/t: Mark Steyn) about the excesses of one of Obama’s European trips.

President Barack Obama’s visit on Tuesday will strain the city like never before with €10m ($10.4m, £8.4m) of Belgian money being spent to cover his 24 hours in the country. The president will arrive on Tuesday night with a 900-strong entourage, including 45 vehicles and three cargo planes.

The article didn’t say how many of the 900 staffers were Secret Service agents, but I’m guessing maybe 200 or 300. Heck, even if it was 400 or 500, why did taxpayers have to pick up the tab for another 400 or 500 (or more) staffers who weren’t there for security-related reasons?

Yes, presidents need to have staff to conduct business, but we live in a world with advanced communications technology.

I’m a former congressional staffer, and I’ve had lots of friends work for various administrations, so I understand that a nice overseas trip can be fun for people who otherwise toil in obscurity.

But as the risk of being a curmudgeon, I don’t want taxpayers to foot the bill. I want there to be a mentality of frugality. And if politicians won’t adopt that mentality (and they almost certainly won’t, as shown by this example), then it would be nice to attach some strings to limit their excesses.

P.S. I grouse about goodies for American politicians, but I’d probably be even more upset if I was a taxpayer in Europe.

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”

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