Milking the Chopper Affair

July 24, 1995

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's call for congressional hearings into White House staff use of presidential helicopters is transparently political. If there is political mileage in beating up Bill Clinton, it will come out in Waco and Whitewater hearings and not some sideshow dealing with White House underlyings taking unauthorized helicopter joyrides.

It's little wonder that Mr. Bartlett doesn't want to let go of this issue. The congressman, whose Western Maryland district includes Carroll County and western Howard County, was able to catapult himself into the national spotlight last year when he publicized a newspaper photograph showing a White House aide -- since fired -- boarding a military chopper after playing a round of golf at a Frederick area country club.

Congressman Bartlett was correct to point out this abuse. The helicopters are supposed to transport the president, vice president, their wives and visiting heads of state. Only under the most extraordinary circumstances should the presidential helicopter transport White House staff. As a result of Mr. Bartlett's efforts, the White House changed the method for requesting and granting authorizations for the fleet. No further abuse has been reported.

Nevertheless, Maryland's intrepid representative isn't about to relinquish this issue. Mr. Bartlett is apparently dissatisfied with the General Accounting Office report that he himself requested, which reviewed 1,200 flights and uncovered no further misuse. The GAO, Congress' investigative arm, found that White House aides had used the helicopters on 14 flights between the time Mr. Clinton took office and the embarrassing golfing excursion in early 1994.

The General Accounting Office apparently didn't delve deeply into the 13 other flights, but as a percentage of total flights they amounted to 1 percent of the total trips on presidential helicopters. The White House claims that except for the golf trip, the other times the staff used the helicopter were "appropriate." Even if these 13 other flights weren't justifiable, it makes little sense to hold congressional hearings on a relatively minuscule issue that has apparently been resolved.

Mr. Bartlett proclaims he is not out to conduct a "political witch hunt," although with an early spring primary facing him next year, one has to wonder. We were among many who applauded him for helping to bring the abuse to light. He shouldn't cheapen his effort.

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