The House passed a Defense spending bill late last month that included nearly $200 million for three Gulfstream G550 jets and specified that two planes be assigned to units that routinely transport Members of Congress and government officials.
The 89th Airlift Wing provides global Special Air Mission (SAM) airlift, logistics, aerial port and communications for the President, Vice President, Combat Commanders, senior leaders and the global mobility system, according to the Andrews Web site.
King told Roll Call, the 201st Airlift Squadron provides short-notice worldwide transportation for the executive branch, Congressional Members, Department of Defense officials and high-ranking U.S. and foreign dignitaries.
An Armed Forces Press Service news story from 2004 said that the 201st counted U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert [R-Ill.] and [then-Senate Armed Services Chairman] John Warner [R-Va.] among its frequent flyers.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said if Congress wants to buy new jets for the comfort of top government officials, I think that all needs to be justified on the merits. ... Certainly, lawmakers can fly and many do fly coach and business class. While there may be reasons for flying on top-notch private jets, it shouldnt just be squeezed into the bill.
Ellis said the airplanes are also part of a larger trend for the Appropriations Committee to simply decide that big-ticket items are program increases, not earmarks, so they require less public disclosure.
The more that you push for transparency, the more of this stuff goes underneath the carpet, Ellis said. While Congress has established new rules requiring greater transparency for earmarks, the Appropriations Committee is the judge, jury and executioner over what is an earmark and what isnt and how much information we get.
But military analysts said the private jets, despite the high price tag, may be worth the money because of the security and efficiency they provide to high-ranking public officials.
Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the conservative Lexington Institute, said, In the case of the VIP transport for the executive branch, you can easily explain the cost [of private travel] in terms of the risk of somebody being taken hostage or having their time wasted when a critical decision is pending.
Thompson pointed out that the cost of the plane would be peanuts compared to the cost to the nation if a top official were taken hostage or harmed taking a commercial flight to a dangerous region of the world.
But Thompson also said that logic applies to the top members of the executive branch more than it applies to the Member from the 13th district of Illinois.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense information Web site, said military officials need a long-range airplane and [its] better to fly them on a small one than a big one.