Congressional car leases cost taxpayers $1 million

March 12, 2006|By KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- Taxpayers paid more than $1 million last year for members of Congress to lease vehicles, including dozens of gas-guzzling SUVs and expensive luxury cars.

Some members of Congress used their office budgets to lease Lexuses, Lincolns, Cadillacs, an Infiniti, even a BMW 530i, which one auto critic called "one of the world's best sport luxury sedans." The lease prices of some cars topped $1,000 a month.

A few leased two cars on the taxpayers' dime; two lawmakers leased three.

Leasing cars is a little-known perk used by 136 members of the 435-member House of Representatives in 2005. The Senate doesn't allow its members to lease cars with their office budgets. Last year, the House leases cost at least $1.05 million. Taxpayers also paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars more in gas and insurance.

Defenders of the system say that leasing cars can be cheaper than reimbursing lawmakers for driving their own cars through districts that often sprawl over thousands of miles. If members and staff use their own cars on official business, the House reimburses them a maximum of 44.5 cents per mile.

Critics agree that the practice can be a good deal for taxpayers when members lease efficient, inexpensive cars.

For example, Rep. Sue Myrick, a North Carolina Republican, leased a Honda Accord that cost less than $215 a month - and got good mileage.

"She wanted something responsible with the taxpayers' dollars," said Andy Polk, Myrick's spokesman. "It's appropriate, and it gets the job done."

But too often, critics say, members of Congress choose luxury. They say that's especially troubling when lawmakers are dealing with soaring budget deficits by cutting dozens of popular federal programs, such as student loans.

"If they're telling everybody to tighten their belts and they're leasing these luxury cars, it just doesn't fly in Peoria," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Indeed, members of Congress could lease less expensive - and less flashy - cars through the General Services Administration, the federal government's purchasing agency, which negotiates bulk lease prices for the federal government.

SUVs can be leased through the GSA for as little as $300 a month, according to the GSA Web site. Four-door, midsize sedans cost $258 a month.

The whole point of the GSA fleet-lease program is "to get the best value for the taxpayers," said Charles Cook, an agency spokesman.

But spokespeople for several lawmakers said they were unfamiliar with the GSA program or thought that Congress wasn't eligible for it.

At a time when President Bush has challenged Congress to help America break its addiction to oil, critics say it's ironic that many lawmakers lease SUVs. At least 56 leased vehicles in 2005 were SUVs.

"Leadership by example has never been a forte of the United States Congress," said Gary Ruskin, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Accountability Project. "We see more of `Do as I say, not as I do.' This is just another example."

House rules say leased cars can be used in members' districts so long as they're used primarily for official business, not for political or personal reasons.

Ashdown pointed out that there's no real oversight to ensure that those rules are obeyed.

Money for leases comes from the budgets that House members get to run their offices. The House Office of Administrative Counsel must approve a lease, which can't exceed the length of a member's term. Lawmakers include the cost of leased cars in detailed quarterly reports.

The most expensive vehicle leased was a Ford Expedition for Rep. Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat, for $1,248.31 a month. The cheapest: a Chevrolet Tahoe leased by Rep. John Carter, a Texas Republican, for $210.65 a month.

Many members report only the cost of a lease and not the make or model of the vehicle. The most popular models identified were SUVs: 19 members of Congress reported leasing the Chevrolet Tahoe or its twin, the GMC Yukon. They get about 15 miles per gallon in the city.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, a Republican whose district covers 5,500 oft-remote miles in southwestern Missouri, leases a Tahoe for $903.80 a month.

"Because his district is rather spread out and he frequently takes a lot of staff with him, this is the vehicle he's used for some time," spokeswoman Burson Taylor said.

Blunt also requires a large car because, as a House leader, he travels with a security detail, Taylor said.

Not all members who lease pricey cars have big districts. Most don't have security details, either.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, tools around his 16-square-mile Manhattan district in a Cadillac DeVille that costs nearly $1,000 a month. In nearby Queens, Democratic Rep. Gregory W. Meeks chose a Lexus for $1,062.85 a month.

Neither Rangel's nor Meeks' office returned calls.

Ross, whose Arkansas district covers nearly 21,000 square miles, spent the most taxpayer money on cars in 2005: a total of $36,343.84 for an Expedition, a Ford 500 and a Ford Crown Victoria.

The median annual income of Ross' constituents is about $30,000, according to the U.S. Census.

Ross' leases are expensive because they're short term and high mileage, said Rachel Kleinman, his spokeswoman - although so are most other lawmakers' leases. She said she didn't know whether Ross had shopped around for a better deal.

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