FEC Offers Travel Rules Changes

Some New Approaches Could Lower Costs for Campaigns

Posted August 15, 2003 at 4:40pm

The Federal Election Commission is considering changing the current rules on candidate travel — a move that could dramatically lower the costs candidates pay for private aircraft on the campaign trail.

The FEC drew up three potential approaches to the rules changes, which it put out for comment last week. The FEC is accepting public comments on its proposal until Sept. 19 and will hold a public hearing Oct. 1 before deciding how to move forward.

Critics of the current system say the FEC rules governing campaign travel are confusing, ambiguous and inconsistent.

For instance, when candidates use corporate or labor union jets to stump, they are typically required to reimburse the companies or organizations at a rate equivalent to first-class airfare, depending on the plane’s ownership.

However, when candidates or aides fly on airplanes owned by companies or people not in the business of providing commercial air travel — such as some charter companies or fractionally owned planes — they could end up paying more.

Campaigns can only reimburse such providers at first-class rates if that destination city is served by regularly scheduled commercial air service. If not, they must pay a charter rate, which is typically higher than first class.

Such arbitrary rules created havoc for Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) when he was running for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996.

While Specter’s political opponents were paying a first-class rate to fly on corporate jets and Air Force One (in the case of then-President Bill Clinton), the FEC alleged that Specter had received “in-kind corporate contributions” when he paid only $127,000 for flights aboard a charter operator known as Koro Aviation.

Although Specter’s campaign had paid the equivalent of first-class airplane tickets for campaign travel, the FEC contended he should have paid a higher rate — an amount it determined to be $360,000 — because the company was a charter company.

Although the case involving Specter was eventually settled in U.S. District Court, Michael Toner, a Republican commissioner who is spearheading the effort to revamp the law, contends that “the FEC’s travel rules have definitely been among the most complicated and difficult for people to understand for a long time.”

Continued Toner: “I strongly believe there ought to be one set of rules for everybody no matter where you’re flying in the country. … There ought to be one law that’s understandable for everybody.”

In its proposed rule change, the FEC pointed out the inequity that results: Candidates campaigning in metropolitan areas with regularly scheduled airline service can fly privately at the cost of a first-class ticket, whereas candidates who campaign in rural areas are often forced to pay a more exorbitant charter rate.

“The Commission is concerned that the current reimbursement scheme might be unnecessarily complex and negatively affects campaigning in rural areas,” the proposal stated.

The rulemaking approved by the FEC last Thursday would establish a “simple, uniform payment scheme covering all candidate travel on either government or private aircraft and other conveyances.”

The FEC laid out three possible approaches.

One plan would set a payment rate for each campaign traveler at the amount of the lowest nondiscounted first-class airfare to the closest airport that has such service, regardless of whether the actual destination airport is served by regularly scheduled commercial airliners.

It would also allow campaigns to pay for a private airplane at a “coach rate” if the destination airport doesn’t have regularly scheduled first-class airline service.

That alternative would also eliminate an advance payment requirement that currently exists — making last-minute travel changes rather complicated — and instead require payment within seven calendar days of the travel.

Another possible approach would set out two different payment rates closely following the travel valuation rules set forth in House and Senate ethics rules.

In that case, previously scheduled flights between cities with regularly scheduled air service would be paid at a normal first-class airfare rate. But chartered flights into areas not normally served by scheduled airliners would be paid at no less than the normal charter rate.

A third alternative would establish uniform rules requiring the payment amount to be the normal and usual costs of chartering a plane of sufficient size to accommodate all campaign travelers, the news media and security personnel. It would be based on the rate of chartering an entire plan, not a per-passenger cost.

The FEC noted in its proposal that this alternative would “provide a more accurate reflection of the true value of the use of a private or governmental airplane by campaign travelers,” but acknowledged it might be more costly for campaigns.