Taxpayer Mugging for Political Fundraising

by Michael Taylor

We've just been mugged again, folks. And the pickpocket is so good that once again many of us never had a clue. As elections draw nearer, expect to see many other cities with volatile Senate races undergo repeated, mindless assaults to their unstable budgets in the form of "fund-raising events". Incident by incident, the costs may not seem so enormous, but when it is all added up in the end, the partisan process that allows our President and Vice President to support and attend unlimited fund-raising events for politicians throughout the country largely at taxpayer expense robs each and every one of us without our consent.

Regardless of the reason for a trip, government regulations prescribe that certain high level officials, as well as past Presidents and their families for a total of ten years after they leave office, must receive a certain level of secret service protection. Anyone would agree that this is necessary, particularly in the era of heightened "Homeland Security". In the past, cities forced to bear the burden of security for partisan political events could at least console themselves with the idea that the official's visit would bring news and notoriety, hopefully offsetting the costs by encouraging visitors and tourism. When there are almost no opportunities for the public to interact with or to hear the visitor, and when cities in an economic downturn are ill-equipped to pay, any perceived benefits have largely vanished.

The political stakes are high this year. While attempting to maintain control of the House, the Bush cabinet naturally seeks to tip the majority balance in the Senate, thus ensuring control of the entire Congress. To sweeten their chances of plucking this plum, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have picked up the pace for fund-raising. Like a juggernaut gathering momentum in its race toward November, they sprint from one pricey, exclusive, photo-op function to the next, each largely closed to the general public. So intense is this activity that about two months ago on June 23rd, ABC Online declared that George Bush had smashed the election fundraising record for an American President, having brought the running total for the GOP and its candidates to about $200 million thus far in 2002.

It seems obvious that - if we are to protect the interests of US taxpayers of all income levels and affiliations - reform is long overdue. It has remained stymied, however, for a single hypocritical reason: When a Democratic President flies about the country campaigning for Democratic candidates, the Republicans complain. Now, while the Bush administration seeks to push its candidates at public expense, Democrats have suddenly found religion and are speaking out against the cost and expenditure. If history repeats itself, members of both parties will cease to make an issue of this shameful misuse of money when the elections are over ... until the next campaign season rears its head, bringing the entire cycle around again. Cities and individuals who write to their elected officials and to their government to register their displeasure and to ask for recourse or response are uniformly ignored. The City of Portland has been ignored. With the exception of the Mayor's office and one local newspaper, I have been ignored.

Just as irresponsible CEOs are being brought to task for taking advantage of their stockholders and employees, our government should be taken to task for appropriating the money of its citizens to pay for appearances of high level elected officials who travel to cities and states for the primary purpose of partisan political fundraising. Jack Ohman, in his August 19th Oregonian editorial cartoon put it beautifully: The President of the United States is the "CEO" of our country. With that title come not only rights, but also fiscal responsibility to all taxpayers.

This problem is not the sole fault of any one political party and yet it has everything to do with both Democrats and Republicans. Both have been guilty of abuse. Both have developed an oversized sense of power and entitlement. This is not a security issue. No one would argue that our President, Vice-President, and other high level officials along the lines of succession should not be protected; our government has made clear that it mandates this protection. Who should pay is the big question and the answer is simple ... If a visit is undertaken primarily for partisan political fundraising, then the beneficiaries should be assuming the associated expenses. This means that the political party and candidates ... and possibly the political figure making an appearance for photo ops, etc. ... need to step up to the plate and assume the responsibility for the investment as well as the profit.

What kind of expenses are we talking about? In today's climate of high security and terror, many figures relating to how often the President and Vice President travel, to where, and what expenses are involved are "not available" to the public; it is difficult to put a finger on exactly how much money is at stake. This has been a source of frustration to reporters who, in the past year, have been met with White House and Republican National Committee refusals to make public documents relating to presidential travel costs. lists what I would assume to be a majority of the President's politically-motivated trips (accompanied by transcripts of his speeches) although it does not detail similar trips made by the Vice President. Within the first 16 months of his presidency, Mr. Bush took 28 out-of-town political trips while federal records show that Clinton took 20 in a corresponding period. In January, the White House on-line calendar includes three; in July the pace has picked up considerably with at least 7 major appearances by Mr. Bush and an unknown amount by Mr. Cheney. Public records through the first two weeks of August during the President's "working vacation" record 5 fundraisers from Prout's Neck, Maine to Des Moines, Iowa. Staff writer Mike Allen of the Washington Post, notes in an article published on May 20th titled Stopovers Let Bush Charge Taxpayers for Political Trips, that "... because Bush is always the President -- whether acting as commander in chief or head of the Republican Party - taxpayers pay the full $57,000-an-hour cost of flying Air Force One regardless of the trip's purpose. The government also pays for most of his entourage and for the military and communications gear and evacuation helicopters that travel ahead of him."

On fundraising trips, federally subsidized costs - including facilities rental, cars and hotel rooms for advance workers - are apportioned according to how much of the trip was political and how much was official government business. Unbudgeted local security costs are borne by the host city, often at overtime salary rates. "The effect," writes Allen, "is a deep taxpayer subsidy of presidential political visits because the parties or candidates pay far less for the total visit than does the government."

During Mr. Cheney's recent fundraising trip to Portland, the City paid the entire bill for security expenses - a preliminary figure of $12,000 - while the Republican Party of Oregon and Senator Gordon Smith's re-election campaign covered the cost of flying Cheney's Boeing 757 to Portland and the Vice President's hotel costs. Why didn't the beneficiaries feel obliged to pay more? Portland Tribune reporter Don Hamilton put it this way in a brief rejoinder to my letter to the editor of July 5, 2002: "Security and staff costs will not be charged to the campaign on the theory that he [Cheney] 'd use those resources even if he was on official duty." A muddled argument at best; if Mr. Cheney had not come to Portland for fundraising in the first place, there wouldn't be any unbudgeted expenses for Portland to be saddled with.

What are the reasons behind this year's escalation of fundraising appearances by the President and Vice President? They're twofold. The first is the most obvious: Republicans who currently control the House desire to control the Senate as well. Because Democrats hold the Senate by virtue of one seat, the outcome of this year's Senate races could represent a major change in the balance of power. The second reason is less obvious: In March of 2002 the President signed a Campaign Finance Law that bans unlimited contributions known as "soft money" to national political parties which have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in such cash in recent years. In addition, the law sharply limits such contributions to state and local political parties, and restricts broadcast ads by outside groups shortly before elections. Unfortunately this law doesn't go into effect until November 6th, 2002, a day after elections. Signaling his intention to harvest as many contributions as possible before that time, Bush immediately set off on a blitz in the Carolinas raising some $3.5 million for fellow Republicans immediately after signing the law.

"I'm not going to lay down my arms," he explained to reporters in Greenville, South Carolina. "These Senate races are very important for me. I want the Republicans to take control of the Senate ... It's in my interest."

It is no secret that Portland and the State of Oregon, with its high employment rate and budget balancing problems, are in dire financial straits; the same is true of many US cities in the wake of 9/11. So, while the costs associated with this visit - and the one by Mr. Bush - might seem like "small potatoes" to high rollers, the partisan political fundraising hits taken by larger east coast cities and, in particular, by New York City in February of 2002 were far worse. Mr. Bush's fundraising, which included a pair of reelection receptions, resulted in a profit of $2 million for Governor George Pataki's war chest. While in town, the President dropped by the New York Police Department's command-and-control center for a brief tour and an off-the-cuff 20-minute speech.

"The side trip," argued Allen, "added a patina of government officialdom to the day. It also allowed the White House to bill taxpayers for 54 percent of the hotel rooms, rental cars and other local expenses for setting up the visit."

A senior administration official has been quoted as saying that, "each trip's official component, known around the White House as the 'policy event' is scheduled first, and then the fundraisers are added." That doesn't agree with statements issued by party officials who routinely distribute press releases regarding fundraisers long before specifics of the 'policy events' are mentioned. Other White House officials admit that it is the fundraising tail that wags the traveling dog.

In January of 2002, Mr. Bush dropped by a Portland business, a community college, and a small gathering at Parkrose High School on his way home from a California fundraiser where he "picked up and gave a ride" to Oregon Republican candidates who continued to appear with him throughout the day. The unbudgeted expense to the City of Portland for this brief visit was $107,000. The August 22nd Portland Presidential stopover was an overnighter with a predictably higher price tag -- all so that an estimated 350 high rollers could pose for $25,000 photo ops, pay for a pricey dinner and hear Mr. Bush speak at the Hilton. Technically, this may be legal, but is it in the public's general interest?

Finally, the August 22nd visit by Mr. Bush was planned many months in advance as a Republican Fundraising trip, primarily to benefit Senator Gordon Smith. Smith, ironically, has already raised $5 for every $1 received by his chief opponent Bill Bradbury. This is not enough, however. Smith's aim is a $7 million dollar war chest. Preliminary estimates of expenses to the City of Portland are $185,000. A week before the appearance, a press release was distributed suggesting that there would be a brief press conference regarding Oregon's wildfire situation during the Bush visit. An August 20th Oregonian article provided more information, fixing the site of the speech near Jacksonville in Southern Oregon but refusing to provide any particulars about its content. Small wonder as it was probably not available. The event was eventually expanded to a four-hour stop in Central Point where officials and a hand-picked crowd were invited to hear Mr. Bush discuss timber concerns and promote a forest products industry agenda relating to forest management and fire control while those with questions or dissenting opinions were confined to a police-patroled, chain link "free speech" area where they couldn't be seen or heard. This appearance was a smokescreen, intended to make Mr. Bush's reason for visiting Oregon seem like more than a fundraising opportunity and - in fact - a majority of the speech had little to do with forest policy and the parts that did offered little in the way of new information.

The hard truth is that Bush has consistently sought to reduce the amount available for fire control. In his initial budget this year he proposed cuts of $600 million. An editorial appearing in the August 22nd Oregonian notes that he, "strongly opposed $700 million in emergency fire suppression money Congress inserted into a Forest Service budget bill this summer, and - last week - shot down a big spending package that included an extra $50 million for firefighting, saying it included too much needless spending." At the same time, he has requested an increase in the White House travel budget from $1.6 million to $3.8 million. The Portland fundraiser had been planned months before the first tendrils of smoke rose over our Oregon forests.

Public Advocate for Portland Mayor Vera Katz, Michael Mock, relates that, "The Mayor has been very, very concerned about these unbudgeted costs and has directed me to contact other western cities to see how they approach seeking reimbursement for assistance given the Secret Service." He has contacted the Federal Election Commission and has asked the US Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities to consider adopting policies that address these costs.

Citizens who feel that this government sanctioned mugging is wrong are encouraged to write to their government and to their elected officials. If enough of us express our displeasure, there is a greater possibility that the abuse will be harder to hide.

David J. Sirota, the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic spokesman may have phrased it best when he said, "At a time when we are desperately trying to put every dime we can into securing our country after September 11th, the president needs to explain why he thinks taxpayers should foot the enormous bill for him to gallivant across the country doing $1,000-a-plate dinners with friends."

Michael Taylor is a historian, writer and research consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at