Next, presidential perks come under fire

March 29, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to the perquisites of power, people who live in White Houses shouldn't throw stones.

So say the Democratic leaders of Congress. They've been watching in agonized disbelief as President Bush gleefully tries to exploit the lawmakers' troubles over the House bank scandal. They're irked that he, of all people, is advancing the image of public servants too bloated on perks and privileges to serve the public.

"He lives a life like no other human being in the world," observed Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "What is the kettle doing, trying to call the pot black?"

In a loosely coordinated campaign highlighted by a series of hearings beginning this week, the lawmakers will attempt to show that the so-called "imperial Congress" has nothing on the imperial presidency.

For example:

* While members of Congress go on occasional junkets at taxpayers' or lobbyists' expense, the president has a 1,200-plane fleet at his command. In the flagship, Air Force One, (actually two deluxe 747s, with one acting as backup and decoy), he has visited all 50 states and nearly three dozen foreign countries at a total travel cost estimated at $100 million a year.

* While members of the House and Senate have taxpayer-subsidized gymnasiums, swimming pools, barbershops, medical clinics and restaurants, Mr. Bush has all those amenities at the White House and much more. And they cost him nothing -- except for the haircut.

* While Mr. Bush calls Congress "a privileged class of rulers that answers to no one with respect to its budget, its staff [and] its perks," his own budget, staff and perks are hidden in a maze of government agencies that disguise their true cost so thoroughly that only guesses can be made. An 18-month-old General Accounting Office inquiry into how the White House finances political trips by the president and the vice president has come up empty because the White House is stonewalling, lawmakers say.

"They are losing all sense that every time they move, it's terribly expensive," said Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, who is pushing for full disclosure of presidential expenses.

He noted that Mr. Bush flew to Texas in December to sign a highway financing bill at a construction site, in order to convey the idea that he was creating jobs. "I don't think a trip like that might be taken if American taxpayers knew that 30 seconds on television cost $200,000 more than if they had just put a card table on the lawn of the White House," the Democratic congressman said.

White House officials contend there's little chance that voter ire will be stirred by a new focus on executive perks.

"No one has ever accused George Bush of misuse of public funds," said Ron Kaufman, the White House political director. "That dog won't hunt."

Anna Perez, press secretary to first lady Barbara Bush, protested that complaints about the mansion staff don't take into account that the White House is a museum and was used to entertain 33,000 guests last year, not counting tourists.

But a House Democratic leadership aide warned that Mr. Bush might be "falling into real quicksand" by inviting a closer look into the fringe benefits of his own job.

Some of the payback currently being plotted against Mr. Bush is overtly political.

For example, the Democratic National Committee plans to reissue next week its wildly popular "George Bush -- The Anywhere But America Tour" T-shirt that sold 15,000 copies at $10 each last fall.

Adorned with a list of 30 countries visited by the president during his first years in office, the shirt struck a chord with recession-wounded Americans who suspected that he was ignoring their problems.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, also served notice last week that he intends to carefully comb the executive branch budget for examples of "unnecessary and wasteful" items comparable to the list of congressional "pork barrel" projects Mr. Bush wants lawmakers to cut.

Similarly, Sen. David H. Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas, is about to issue new instructions to GAO investigators to get a full accounting of political travel made by the president and vice president. The government is supposed to be reimbursed for the cost of such travel, but the reimbursements only cover a fraction of the full cost.

But the most sweeping and most public examination of the goodies that go along with the presidency is being undertaken by Mr. Kanjorski. The chairman of an obscure House subcommittee, he has decided to use his power to seek a strict accounting of White House expenses for the first time since 1978.

Mr. Kanjorski insists that the motives behind his research project, which began nearly nine months ago, are not partisan.

"We have no idea what the real costs are," he said. Figures provided by the White House are "useless in terms of what the realities are."

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