Now that former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has been drummed out of government for swanning around the nation in private planes at exorbitant expense to taxpayers, other members of the Trump administration are jockeying to claim the mantle of haughtiest Cabinet member.
Among the leading contenders is Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who seems to have learned contempt for the people who pay his salary at the knee of Price. Zinke thought nothing of spending $12,375 on a charter flight from Las Vegas, where he spoke at the behest of a political patron, to his home state of Montana in June. He waved away criticism of the flight as “a little B.S. over travel.”
For starters, Zinke should pay back the government the $12,375, which he’s not likely to mind since he clearly regards the amount as trivial — or, as he would put it, just “a little B.S.”
Not everyone would be comfortable helping himself to the contents of Uncle Sam’s pockets, but to a fellow of Zinke’s arrogance it appears to be no big deal. As a Navy SEAL in the late 1990s, he was forced to reimburse the government after improperly billing travel expenses, an incident that temporarily blocked his promotion at the time. He claimed to have learned a lesson, and now says piously that “taxpayers absolutely have the right to know official travel costs.” Yet he doesn’t seem to mind if they know he has bilked them.
Alongside other Trump administration Cabinet members, Zinke’s high and mighty travel spending isn’t very exceptional. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are among at least seven Cabinet-level officials who have shunned the plebeian confines of commercial planes in favor of private jets and military flights at public expense— all at a total cost of millions of dollars.
Mnuchin took a government jet to Kentucky to visit Fort Knox this summer, where he watched the solar eclipse, and tried to take one to Paris for his honeymoon, at a cost of thousands of dollars. His request was denied.
President Trump has wrinkled his nose at the “optics” of such profligacy, prompting budget director Mick Mulvaney to declare that all subsequent travel on government-owned, rented or chartered aircraft shall, with a few exceptions, require prior approval of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
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“Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right,” wrote Mulvaney, dispensing a lesson from Integrity 101. Fine words. Yet it might also be worth the trouble to tighten the language in government regulations to make it clear that commercial flights, except in extraordinary circumstances, are adequate for the mortals who occupy government positions.
Despite the umpteen-zillion words devoted to the subject in the Federal Travel Regulation, that simple principle appears to have gotten lost.
This editorial first appeared in the Washington Post.