How Obama is saving the DNC money on his fundraising trips --- at your expense
By Susan Crabtree | July 23, 2014 | 5:00 am
During President Obama's West Coast fundraising swing this week, he'll squeeze in an official speech about job training at a community college between multimillion-dollar fundraisers in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles to benefit House and Senate Democrats' re-elections this fall.
But that's not just because he's a multi-tasker. It will also cut down the cost of the trip.
Over the last few weeks Obama has made a practice of sprinkling in a few public-policy speeches on trips devoted mostly to fundraising, even as he's faced new foreign policy crises in Ukraine and Gaza.
His top spokesman says he’s not letting the money chase distract him from his commander-in-chief responsibilities and would not hesitate to make changes to his schedule if duty calls.
“When the president travels, he travels with an array of staff and advisers and communications equipment that allows him to do his job from wherever he happens to be,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday. “And if it becomes clear that there's a need for him to come back to the White House in order to fulfill those functions, then we'll make a change in his schedule.
“Right now, it’s not apparent that that’s the case,” he added.
But critics say the fundraising visits -- one of which will take place at the Beverly Hills home of the producer of the ABC-TV series “Scandal” -- during crises at home and abroad are particularly ill-timed because they're funded by taxpayer dollars.
“What I think the president has failed to do is the job he was paid to do, which is to lead the country, and where legislation is necessary, to engage with those who actually pass legislation, which is all of us.,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.
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.”
Despite Obama's pledge to run the most transparent administration in history, the White House and the DNC have done nothing to clarify the situation.
DNC spokesman Michael Czin said “the DNC reimburses for political travel as dictated by relevant federal rules and regulations, as in previous administrations” but did not elaborate about how the party determines the formula for mixed events.
The White House spokesman did not return a request for comment by press time.
A search of DNC Federal Election Commission reports turned up $227,000 in payments so far this year to the White House Airlift Office, which organizes and plans all presidential travel. Last year, the DNC reimbursed the same office approximately $1.2 million and in 2012, during Obama's re-election campaign, the party committee paid $1.7 million.
Those figures are just a minor fraction of the costs of operating Air Force One, with its extensive advance teams, Secret Service agents, vehicles and military and civilian personnel required to travel with the president.
The Air Force estimates the cost of operating Air Force One, a modified Boeing 747, at $228,000 to $288,000 an hour.
After this latest West Coast swing, Obama will have done 77 fundraising events across the country so far this year, according to Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and an authority on presidential fundraising and travel.