Where Is the Transparency in the President's Travel?

by Jennifer L. Crull

Transparency, transparency, and transparency ― those were the words that we heard over and over during Obama’s first election cycle for President. Now as we are in the first year of his second term, transparency hasn’t become as important, especially concerning his travel expenses. “Up in the Air: A Study of Presidential Travel and its Uncertain Costs,” by Michael Tasselmyer, is a recent National Taxpayer Union Foundation BRIEF concerning the unbelievable costs associated with the President’s travel.[1]

At first glance you are thinking that of course the President has to travel and it costs us money to keep him safe and healthy when traveling, but did you know that given the recent data for his trip to Africa, his travel is costing us somewhere between “$7.5 - $12.5 million per day”? There is also very little transparency when it comes to Presidential travel costs.[2] Then, taking into consideration that the President has already taken four trips in the first six months of his fifth year of office and has been gone 18 days, this is a large amount of taxpayers’ money that is being spent, and the public has a right to know the “costs and benefits of such activities.”[3]

The Monday, July 15, 2013, edition of The Des Moines Register had a Register Exclusive about the travel of Governor Branstad during his 14 months in office. During this time the Governor has spent 98 days outside of Iowa and visited eight countries, with the grand cost coming in at $65,574.[4] At least for Iowa we can see a breakdown of the costs to the taxpayers and how much each trip costs. This makes our state information much more transparent than the federal government is concerning the President’s travel.

This BRIEF points out that President Obama was the most traveled President in his first year of office. He traveled 41 days to 21 different countries.[5] Presidential entourages have grown very large in the last decade. When the President visited London in 2009, he was accompanied by more than 500 staff (including security).[6]

Table One shows trips abroad in the fifth year of office for the past Presidents. As the BRIEF points out President Obama’s data is only through the first six months, but:

If one assumes that he stays for the entirety of each of the above-mentioned conferences, he will have made 6 trips, 13 visits, and spent 26 days abroad in the first year of his second term. That would be similar to the pace set by his predecessor, George W. Bush.[7]

As this BRIEF points out, when the President travels abroad this requires a vast amount of planning and logistical work. But there is also no way to get a true cost of the Presidential travel. The report also points out that “in fact, no complete, official account of the expenses has ever been made available to the public.”[8] So how do we know that the trips are worth the cost if we don’t know the true cost?

We know that Presidents don’t travel alone and the taxpayers pay those costs. The section in the BRIEF concerning President Clinton’s travel speaks to the total lack of transparency concerning traveling.

President Clinton’s trip to Africa in 1998 involved a support team of 1,302 people, not including Secret Service members (or private citizens who paid for their own expenses). Of that group, 904 were with the Department of Defense. Other personnel were from the Executive Office of the President (204), the U.S. Information Agency (103), and the Department of State (60, including 16 Members of Congress), among other agencies. GAO also reported that Clinton’s 9-day trip to China in the same year cost $18,830,092, and that he was accompanied by 510 support staff. There were 592 on his trip to Chile.[9]

Obviously for security reasons the White House can’t release all the details concerning an upcoming trip for the President, but the following section details information concerning the President’s recent trip to Africa.

The Washington Post obtained confidential documentation from White House and Secret Service staff that detailed some of the elaborate preparations that will be going into the latest Africa trip. At least 100 Secret Service protection agents will be needed to occupy security checkpoints along the journey, and an additional 100 will be flown in to ensure 24-hour staffing of the President’s immediate security detail. The document also revealed that in light of lower quality hospitals and health care in the region, the U.S. Navy planned to send a vessel with a fully equipped medical center and staff to be kept offshore in the event of an emergency. Military cargo planes planned to airlift 56 support vehicles – including 14 limousines and 3 trucks tasked with carrying bulletproof glass for the President’s hotel windows – and U.S. fighter jets will operate in shifts to provide 24-hour air protection. [10]

Table Two looks at the number of days abroad for the first term versus second term for the last four two-term Presidents. This table easily points out that Presidents are out of the country more during their second term than their first. Given that this BRIEF shares that President Obama was out of the country a total of 95 days in his first term, it is safe to say he will be out of the country more than that during his second term.[11]

While we know that the President’s job requires him to travel abroad and represent our country, it is important to also have an understanding of the true cost of these trips for the taxpayers. For only when we know the cost can we evaluate whether they are worth the expense to the taxpayers. It is also important to continue to work to bring transparency to Presidential travel expenses since these costs will only continue to rise as the years
go by.

[1] Michael Tasselmyer, “Up in the Air: A Study of Presidential Travel and its Uncertain Costs,” NTUF BRIEF #116, National Taxpayer Union Foundation, June 26, 2013, <http://www.ntu.org/ntuf/ntuf-ib-166-up-in-the-air.html> accessed on July 3, 2013.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jason Noble, “Gov. Terry Brandstad is a Road Warrior; out of state 23% of time,” The Des Moines Register, July 15, 2013, <http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013307150040> accessed on July 16, 2013.
[5] Tasselmyer.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

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