July 23 2014
Have you ever had lunch with somebody who said, “Let’s talk about what we’re working on for a few minutes and then we can take this lunch off as a business expense”?
That’s not cricket and is a temptation to be resisted. But something similar happens when the president goes on a fundraising jaunt and the taxpayer gets stuck with the lion's share of the cost of the trip.
Like my friend who proposed an ingenious way to write off lunch, the president ingeniously schedules "official" events on his fundraising trips that justify sending the bill to the people:
On this trip alone, he’ll do a Democratic National Committee and Senate Majority PAC fundraiser in Seattle on Tuesday, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser in San Francisco and DNC fundraiser in Los Angeles on Wednesday and another DNC fundraiser in Los Angeles on Thursday, with a sprinkling of official events in between that include a speech at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.
It’s that “sprinkling of official events” that puts us on the hook for most of the expenses for Fundraiser One. Susan Crabtree of the Examiner explains how it works:
And if Obama includes a public event on a trip otherwise dedicated to convincing supporters to write checks, the Democratic National Committee and other party arms that benefit only have to pay back a fraction of the Air Force One travel costs.
While Obama can rely on Air Force One and other military aircraft at his disposal for official business, federal election laws require the DNC or individual campaigns that benefit to pay for these presidential perquisites at just a fraction of the costs — the equivalent of a commercial airline ticket — whenever he or other administration officials use those federal government resources for political activity.
Like many of his predecessors, Obama tends to piggyback official events onto fundraising trips, further diminishing the costs the DNC must repay the U.S. Treasury, and figuring out the details of just how much they must reimburse taxpayers for the mixed trips is complicated and opaque, confounding even the most experience federal election law experts.
Brett Kappel, an expert on election law at Arent Fox, said the formula has long been a mystery. The only clarification he’s received since 2012 is that now the DNC, not the president’s re-election campaign, must reimburse the U.S. Treasury.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the reimbursement rate on mixed events has remained a mystery over the course of several presidencies and only the White House counsel knows the formula.
“The White House counsel seems to hold the key to this in every administration,” she said.
Regardless of the murky laws requiring some level of reimbursement, McGehee said taxpayers end up footing most of the president’s fundraising travel bill.
While McGehee doesn’t take issue with the taxpayer-funded fundraising travel, she is concerned about “the lack of transparency for the whole process.”
Of course, all presidents use the trappings and perks of office to advance their own party all the time. Republicans do it, and Democrats do it. It is an element of the power of incumbency we hear about when an incumbent is running for re-election. But it does sound a bit like my friend who was trying to write off a social lunch.