NEW YORK. — President Bush and the Congress got together two years ago to pass a new law dealing with the rather questionable fact that cabinet members, White House staffers, senators and representatives were flying around the country in the private jets of rich men and corporations -- but paying only a fraction of the real cost.
The president and Congress made such frequent flying free. The old law said public officials being provided with private jet service by individuals and corporations had to pay the regular first-class fare between Washington and wherever they were going. The new law said they could go free -- as long as the trip was ''non-political.''
''Non-political'' is often a euphemism for ''private.'' An example of non-political travel might be a cabinet member's trip to Augusta, Ga., for a private round of golf and laughs with corporate executives, or a congressman's trip back to his district for an engagement party of his daughter.
It's all part of the privatization of public service. One of the ways you can be one of a thousand points of light and help the government save money is to give some of it to your congressman or your favorite cabinet member. Some of the folks paying all or the better part of public officials' private traveling expenses during the past year or so include: U.S. Tobacco, American Family Life Assurance, Hobbs Bonded Fiber Co., Philip Morris, PepsiCo, Northern Telecom, ARCO, Ameritech, Smithfield Hams, Archer-Daniels-Midland, the Laredo National Bank and Washington developer Stuart Bernstein.
I have never, for instance, heard of Hobbs, nor do I know anything about bonded fiber. But I'll bet Sen. Phil Gramm will one day do something nice for them. The man from Texas is the chairman of the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee and used a Hobbs plane during his travels through 10 Southern states recruiting Republican candidates for the 1992 elections.
In addition to Senator Gramm, some of the frequent fliers getting private service include Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, Energy Secretary James Watkins, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Sen. Strom Thurmond . . . the list goes on and on. It is, of course, headed by White House chief of staff John Sununu.
Those names are from a recent Los Angeles Times report. What got the Times interested was the fact that, despite President Bush's gripe that critics were ''piling on'' Mr. Sununu, few members of the Congress were criticizing him at all for his privatized travel. The reason, it seems, is that political privatization is a bipartisan phenomenon. Our leaders may not be for sale, but if you have a plane, you can rent a couple for a few hours.
There are any number of ways that politicians, who do not make all that much money, at least compared to corporate and Wall Street types, can live rich without tiring themselves by reaching into their pockets for cash or credit cards. The campaign funds they spend about half their days and nights begging for and collecting can be used for travel and such.
Trust funds can be set up by ''friends'' for the tuitions of politicians' children, or friends who are university trustees can steer scholarship money to the right kid. Low- or no-interest loans can be invested for a politician, with the official touching money only when he is handed some and told it is his share of the profit.
Mr. Sununu's favorite dodge, widely used, is to have state political organizations and committees pay for travel costs, because state laws are generally more politician-friendly than federal laws. The federal rules can be maddening, both cumbersome and nasty -- and they presume the guilt of politicians who are as honest as other Americans.
Federal laws and regulations designed to prevent this kind of thing are part of the reason government seems so inefficient and wasteful. Bureaus, bureaucrats and multiple-page forms are there to make stealing more difficult. In self-interested response, small laws like the one slipped by in 1989 by Mr. Bush and the Congress are designed to make it all legal.
Public officials, elected or appointed, are about the hardest-working people I have ever seen. The work may or may not be productive -- that is another question -- but the hours are long. Any time saved is a gift from the gods. And some of the gods, those who own their own airplanes, can be very helpful to a cabinet secretary or a senator in a hurry.
Many of us would be sorely tempted to sell out -- just a tiny bit -- for the chance to avoid the running of the bulls and other confused prisoners of chaos at the airport in, say, St. Louis or Detroit.
Politicians and appointees debate and implement great things, big things. They become inflated with their own importance and a touch bitter about how little they are paid -- compared to the private and corporate rich who finance their campaigns and beg favors in return. They become convinced they are essential to the survival of freedom, democracy and national security. Many sell out, a little at a time, to anyone who can pay their precious way.
Political corruption is often as quiet and incremental as water wearing away a rock, a drop at a time. Experience has shown that public officials will regulate their own finances only under extreme and sustained duress, convincing me, at least, that the people advocating term limitations for politicians are right. Save public officials from themselves! Don't throw the bums out; throw them out before they become bums.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.