Who Should Pay for Hillary’s New York Trips?

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 12 jaunts to New York this year have raised protests that she is campaigning for the New York Senate seat on the taxpayers’ nickel. Every political season, the president and vice president campaign for themselves or the party faithful, as do their families. What rules govern the campaign-related travel by the White House?

Under the Federal Election Campaign Act, the Treasury must be reimbursed for presidential travel that is campaign-related. The Federal Election Commission oversees enforcement of the act, and the relevant campaigns are required to file regular travel statements with the FEC.

When the president, vice president, their families, and their political staffs go campaigning on government planes, they (or some political campaign) must reimburse the government for the equivalent of a first-class airline ticket for each campaign-related traveler. (If no commercial flight is available they must pay the going rate for charter service.) Lodging and meeting hall expenses must also be covered by the campaign. Because presidents, vice presidents, and their families must attend to official duties and stay inside their security bubbles while campaigning, the government assumes the travel costs of Secret Service officers and other official personnel who must accompany them.

The FEC requires reimbursement for travel expenses if an event is designed to raise money or involves more than “incidental” campaign contacts. The timing of the event on the electoral calendar, the substance of remarks made at the event, and the stated purpose of event are also considered. When a trip mixes campaign stops with noncampaign stops, the government must be reimbursed for the portion of the trip devoted directly to campaigning. If any event is campaign-related, the entire stop is considered political.

In most cases, the White House volunteers that a trip is campaign-related and reimburses the government. But the White House sometimes stretches the definition of noncampaign activity. During the campaign year of 1984, President Ronald Reagan gave a red meat speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in which he attacked opponent Walter F. Mondale and led the audience in a chant of “four more years.” The White House claimed that this was an “official” trip because Reagan paid homage to the convention in his speech and did not directly solicit votes.

The White House does its best to avoid the “campaign travel” classification because 1) campaign travel is pricey; 2) such expenditures count against federal campaign spending limits; and 3) noncampaign trips are more effective in communicating the president’s message because they’re considered more “presidential” than campaign stops.

Hillary Clinton’s office insists she will reimburse the Treasury for her political trips, but we won’t know for sure until her soon-to-be-formed exploratory committee files its first statement with the FEC Jan. 31, 2000. Once up and running, her campaign would be wise to reimburse generously to avoid adding to the list of political charges raised against her.