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Last year, lawmakers excoriated the CEOs of the Big Three automakers for traveling to Washington, D.C., by private jet to attend a hearing about a possible bailout of their companies.
But apparently Congress is not philosophically averse to private air travel: At the end of July, the House approved nearly $200 million for the Air Force to buy three elite Gulfstream jets for ferrying top government officials and Members of Congress.
The Air Force had asked for one Gulfstream 550 jet (price tag: about $65 million) as part of an ongoing upgrade of its passenger air service.
But the House Appropriations Committee, at its own initiative, added to the 2010 Defense appropriations bill another $132 million for two more airplanes and specified that they be assigned to the D.C.-area units that carry Members of Congress, military brass and top government officials.
Because the Appropriations Committee viewed the additional aircraft as an expansion of an existing Defense Department program, it did not treat the money for two more planes as an earmark, and the legislation does not disclose which Member had requested the additional money.
An Appropriations Committee staffer said the military was already planning to replace its passenger fleet, and the committee looked at the request and decided they should speed up the replacement.
The Gulfstream G550 is a luxury business jet, which the company advertises as featuring long-range flight capacity that easily links Washington, D.C., with Dubai, London with Singapore and Tokyo with Paris. The companys promotional materials say, The cabin aboard the G550 combines productivity with exceptional comfort. It features up to four distinct living areas, three temperature zones, a choice of 12 floor plan configurations with seating for up to 18 passengers.
The version Gulfstream sells to the military is reconfigured for the government with modest accommodations, not the luxury version sold to private customers, said a source familiar with the planes.
Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) had submitted a request to the Appropriations Committee for a $70 million earmark for one airplane on behalf of Georgia-based Gulfstream, and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) lists the airplane as one of the earmarks that he was asked to request, though his office said he never made the request to the Appropriations Committee.
The committee saw fit to fund it at that level without Kingstons involvement, his spokesman said.
Bishops office did not return several calls requesting comment for this story.
Air Force spokesman Vincent King told Roll Call: This line item provides funding to purchase C-37 aircraft. The C-37 is the military variant of the commercial Gulfstream 550 executive jet. C-37s provide executive airlift for senior U.S. government officials including Congress and combatant commanders.
The language of the appropriations bill specifies that of the three aircraft, the Air Force will provide one aircraft each for the 201st Airlift Squadron and the 89th Airlift Wing. Both are based out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
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.
Pike said it is unreasonable to expect a three-star general and a staff of five people to attend meetings around the world with several stops in far-flung locales while traveling on commercial airlines.