FEC to Rule on Travel

Posted November 19, 2003 at 6:13pm

It’s not just politicians breathing a sigh of relief as the Federal Election Commission takes action this week to revise and simplify the rules governing travel in connection with Congressional and presidential campaigns.

“We are frequently approached by public officials — Federal, state and city, who request a ‘ride’ aboard our corporate aircraft to accommodate their travel schedules,” Nancy Lally, an aircraft scheduler for Louisiana-based Entergy, explained in an e-mail to the FEC.

Although Lally said “very few of these requests are approved,” she nonetheless believes that a “clear uniform format to identify the amount of remuneration and timing of the payment” would be a welcome change.

“It is difficult for these travelers to understand that the amount is due PRIOR to the flight,” Lally explained. “This makes for very labor-intensive communications and sometimes an awkward situation for the pilots just before departure.”

Currently, the FEC requires candidates who hop aboard a corporate jet to reimburse their airfare up front, before the flight even takes off, and depending on where the flight is headed, a candidate could end up paying a cost equivalent to that of a first-class plane ticket, or even as much as it costs to charter a private plane to that destination.

That’s because the FEC, in focusing on the destination city of the traveler, states that if a destination is not served by commercial air service, a campaign ought to pay the equivalent charter rate for that flight — a rule that some argue unfairly disadvantages those who must campaign in largely rural areas.

But all those headaches might be a thing of the past if the FEC decides to adopt new rules establishing a uniform payment scheme covering all federal election travel, whether on government or private aircraft.

One plan the FEC will consider today — “Alternative A” — would charge campaigns the equivalent of first-class airfare to the nearest commercial airport if they use a corporate or labor union jet.

A second possibility the FEC is looking at would allow campaigns to pay the first-class or coach fare when they hitch a ride aboard a “previously scheduled” flight, working off the theory that only minimal additional costs would be incurred by the provider if the flight had already been planned.

A third alternative would require campaigns to reimburse service providers at the charter rate in all cases, regardless of whether a flight was previously scheduled or whether commercial service is available to their destination.

In written comments to the FEC, the Center for Responsive Politics urged commissioners to reject the first plan, arguing that it would “allow campaign committees to pay an amount that is significantly less than the actual costs of travel services received, thereby allowing service providers to provide even more in-kind contributions of travel services.”

The second alternative would be hard to enforce, CRP Executive Director Larry Noble stated, because it would be difficult for the FEC to determine whether a flight was in fact previously scheduled, or was scheduled for the benefit of the candidate.

The CRP favors the third approach of applying the charter rate in all cases, noting it would be “most effective in ensuring that campaigns pay the true cost of travel services.”

Party committees such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee plugged the FEC’s first approach to solving the travel conundrum.

“Alternative A reflects the current reality of air travel and modern campaigns,” NRCC counsel Don McGahn wrote in a letter to the commission. “Alternative B, with its two different payment rates and regulatory, governmental mindset, and Alternative C, which simply imposes the charter rate on all, do not help eliminate the confusion and inequality imposed by the current rules.”

NRSC general counsel Stephen Hoersting encouraged the FEC to go even further in its rulemaking to include airplanes “owned by persons other than corporation or unions.”

Marc Elias, an attorney with Perkins Coie, which advises numerous Democratic candidates and committees, also suggested that the FEC decline “service provides” to include people other than just those who own and lease jets.

Furthermore, Elias urged the FEC to add language to include ensure that other political operatives, not just candidates, are included under the new travel rules.

“There is no apparent reason that payment for travel on behalf of political committees including national party committees should not be treated in the same manner as candidate travel,” Elias wrote.