Congress and Cushy Jets

Washington Matters

Congress and Cushy Jets

The flap over Congress wanting to buy new cushy private jets for its own official travel won't go away soon. It's just too good of a red meat talking point for pundits and government critics and professional curmudgeons who relish revelations about Congress living the good life at taxpayers' expense. This latest example is small beans, though, and a bit overblown.   

The House late last month approved $200 million for three, top-of-the-line, military-operated Gulfstream jets, even though the Air Force requested only one, as reported by Roll Call and opined on often critically by commentators and bloggers.  

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We'll hear about it again as the Senate votes on the Defense Appropriations bill in September. Senators will be put on the spot, perhaps. Agree with the House, which quietly slipped in the jet provision? Or be swayed by critics, who call it lavish and outrageous for Congress to do such a thing during a recession and with the deficit so high. 

The Gulfstream 550 being sought is quite a plane, no doubt about it, and is able to fly nearly 7,000 nautical miles at 600 mph with as many as 18 passengers. At $65 million, it is about three to four times as expensive as some of the nicest corporate business jets, though they don't have anything near the same travel range. There's another $300 million in the House bill, requested by the Air Force, for related replacement aircraft (not as elite as a Gulfstream) that can also be used from time to time by lawmakers.


But all the criticism may be grossly unfair. In fact, there is a case to be made for adding a few more planes, despite the cost, and it's wrong to think of the planes as part of a Congress-only fleet availabe for private jaunts.

Two of the three planes are intended as replacements for aging aircraft and the third as an addition for the military squadron, the 89th Airlift Wing, that is used to provide short-notice global transportation for top civilian and military Defense Dept. personnel, members of the executive branch, members of Congress and foreign dignitaries.

It's not like Joe Lawmaker can order one to fly him and his golfing buddies to Pebble Beach. It's also not the case that members of Congress are the largest users of this fleet. Not by any stretch, in fact. The House Appropriations Committee, according to today's Wall St. Journal, says 44% of the use of the special fleet is by the military, 42% by the administration and only 14.5% by members of Congress.

The priority for these planes is the military and the administration, not Congress. Members of Congress, often as part of a congressional delegation, can fly on them if they are available, or they can hitch a ride on them if they are going to the same place. Lawmakers often use other far less elaborate military transport planes or commercial planes.

That's a salient fact to consider in light of all the criticism over congressional excesses, and other sometimes questionable congressional travel, and these mostly replacement jet planes that are often used for very important travel and not all that often by lawmakers.