WASHINGTON -- The firestorm over political perks will take a giant leap this week from the tainted halls of Congress to the gates of the White House.
A congressional investigation into White House perks starts today, focusing first on presidential travel before delving into other benefits of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Among the fringe benefits available to senior White House aides are budget-priced meals in the exclusive, Navy-run White House mess, and use of White House tennis courts and the presidential box at the Kennedy Center. A select few on the senior staff can pump iron in the Secret Service gym.
Only the chief of staff and national security adviser can order up aircraft, though after the downfall of former Chief of Staff John Sununu controls have been tightened. But senior aides can summon a car and driver at will, even if they're traveling three blocks to buy cigars -- as press secretary Marlin Fitzwater is known to do.
But the most coveted perk of all is simply the status and title that come with working at the White House and, on occasion, the opportunity to travel with the president.
Proof of that status is regularly provided by White House photographers, who record staff meetings with the president. Souvenir pictures are later provided free in frames furnished by a White House shop.
The president, vice president, Cabinet secretaries and White House staff receive a wide range of perks.
President Bush gets the most, of course: rent-free housing in the Executive Mansion, free travel on luxurious helicopters, airplanes and armored limousines, a free weekend hideaway at Camp David, Md., and free medical care.
He also has a tennis court, workout room, horseshoe pit, swimming pool, theater, bowling alley, extraordinarily well-kept gardens and a staff of more than 90 maids, butlers, carpenters, florists, electricians and cooks -- and a food taster.
"Members of Congress take too many perks and pamper themselves at taxpayers' expense, but they can only look on in jealousy at the White House," said Mike Waldman of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen. "We're used to treating our presidents as royalty, so the court of the king lives in luxury as well."
The focus on the White House comes as Congress seeks to shift the public eye away from its bank and post office scandals. Democrats, in particular, are embarking on a crusade against waste, fraud and abuse at the Republican White House.
The House human resources subcommittee kicks off with hearings on presidential travel.
Bush receives a $100,000 travel allowance. He used $28,000 of that in 1991, although he has traveled more than any other president in history. His secret: the Pentagon picks up most of the tab, so taxpayers don't have a clue how much they are really spending.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., wants to change that.
"He doesn't begrudge the White House spending this money. But he does feel the American public should know how much they are spending," said Eva Malecki, Kanjorski's press secretary.
Similarly, Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., requested a year and a half ago an accounting of whether taxpayers are subsidizing the extensive political travel of Mr. Bush, Cabinet members and Vice President Quayle.
The General Accounting Office reportedly had a lot of trouble getting White House cooperation but is finally about to release information on the travel of Cabinet secretaries.
And Rep. William Hughes, D-N.J., is planning to introduce a bill to limit White House perks, just like the bill he introduced last week to limit congressional perks.
Hughes told the Daily News that he's gathering information on exactly what services Mr. Bush, Mr. Quayle and Cabinet officials get.
The Democratic National Committee also is compiling information on White House perks to be used against Mr. Bush in the campaign.
It discovered that the Republican National Committee has collected about $2.5 million in reimbursements from GOP campaigns that Mr. Bush traveled to promote, but has not turned the full amount over to the taxpayers.
Dan Carol of the DNC said the Republicans were holding $1 million that belongs to taxpayers as reimbursement for costs of flying Mr. Bush to appear at GOP fund-raisers and campaign events.
"The issue of government waste, whether Democratic or Republican, is an important issue," said Mr. Carol.