During the past five months, as congressional Republicans were making five separate efforts to gut health care for low-income Americans, the man in charge of administering Obamacare was flying around the country, Europe and Asia on private jets at a cost to taxpayers of more than $400,000. By Thursday night, the figure had jumped to nearly $1 million.
The “optics in some of this don’t look good,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price conceded to Fox News on Saturday.
Indeed, the optics are so bad that the House Oversight Committee has begun an investigation. President Donald Trump, who said Wednesday that he’s “not happy” about the private jet use, is putting distance between himself and Price.
Moving to end the embarrassing news cycle, Price on Thursday said he will pay the federal government back for his private charter plane flights, and take “no more” charter planes while serving as secretary.
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Price pledged to pay back the cost of his “seat” about $52,000 and not necessarily the whole plane.
Conservatives used to care about the careful stewardship of public money, and many of them still do.
But careful stewardship does not fit the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” ethic of top Trump administration officials.
The president himself spends millions of taxpayer dollars to relax outside Washington most weekends, mainly at his golf resorts.
The Trump Organization charges staff and Secret Service up to $546 per night to rent rooms.
Jet envy is contagious. In addition to Price, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — who Forbes magazine reports owns his own private jet — asked the White House for the use of a government jet for his European honeymoon in August.
He made other arrangements but did fly on a government jet to Kentucky on Aug. 21, the date of the solar eclipse.
On that same trip, his wife, actress-producer Louise Linton, took to social media to describe her high-dollar wardrobe.
An outlier is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, part of the family that founded Amway. She has access to Amway’s fleet of 12 private jets but makes a point of paying for her travel herself.
Price is rich — Opensecrets.org estimated his net worth at $14 million in 2016 — but he’s not DeVos rich.
He made his money as an orthopedic surgeon and then entered Congress, where he padded his portfolio with investments in pharmaceutical and medical-products companies that lobbied for rules that Price endorsed or introduced as bills.
Politico reports that while in the House, Price railed against the use of private planes by House members.
In June, HHS spent $50,000 to charter a plane so Price could make a five-state jaunt.
One of the stops was in San Diego, where he vowed to cut wasteful spending out of health programs.
On at least two occasions, Price jetted off on official business but combined it with time for family and friends.
In any previous administration, someone with Price’s record of financial conflicts of interest would never have been appointed to the Cabinet.
But in the Trump administration, two standards apply — one for the president and his inner circle, and another for the people he’s grown tired of.
This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.