Boehner says Obama misuses Air Force One for political trips. Is he right?

Using taxpayer dollars to fly to battleground states to make political points is 'pathetic,' Boehner says. But presidents running for reelection are often accused of using perks of office to unfair advantage – and guidelines are not clear.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama boards Air Force One at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., Wednesday.
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House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio on Thursday said that President Obama should reimburse taxpayers for recent trips to college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado, and Iowa where he pressured Republicans to keep college loan costs from skyrocketing.

Those appearances were political, said Mr. Boehner, and thus his Air Force One travel and other expenses should be paid for by the Democratic Party. The speaker complained that Mr. Obama spent most of his time lambasting Republicans for inaction on a problem that, in fact, the GOP is trying to fix.

“For the president to make a campaign issue and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers’ money to try to make this some political issue is pathetic,” said Boehner at a morning briefing with reporters.

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White House spokesman Jay Carney later in the day replied that the president was simply discussing an important issue in the furtherance of his duties. By making such a big deal out of the impending student loan rate rise, Obama got the GOP to start talking about striking a deal, said Mr. Carney.

“It is eminently obvious that the president was out talking about a policy issue,” said Carney. “This is official business. And he did it effectively.”

Student loan interest rate aside, Boehner and Carney here are engaging in an interesting debate. When is presidential travel official? When is it political? Are there government rules that draw that line?

Yes, there are. But we’ll note in advance that this is an area that has long been contentious. White House incumbents running for reelection are almost always accused of using the perks of office to gain an unfair reelection advantage.

According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service Report on “Presidential Travel: Policy and Costs,” recent White House occupants have decided whether a trip is political or not by invoking guidelines developed by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council (OLC) in 1982, during the Reagan administration.

According to these guidelines, a trip or portion thereof is political if its primary purpose involves the president’s position as the leader of his political party.

“Appearing at party functions, fundraising, and campaigning for specific candidates are the principal examples of travel which should be considered political,” according to the 1982 OLC rules.

On the other hand, travel for inspections, meetings, nonpartisan addresses, and such events should not be considered political, even if the events in question may have partisan consequences or concern issues on which national opinion is divided, according to the OLC.

“Travel and appearances by the President and Vice President to present, explain, and secure public support for the Administration’s measures are therefore an inherent part of the President’s and Vice President’s official duties,” reads the OLC ruling.

Hmm. We’d say that the definition of political travel here is fairly narrow, and the definition of official travel fairly broad. The Republican National Committee has filed a formal complaint with the Government Accountability Office alleging that Obama has misused Air Force One and other federal resources for electoral purposes, but if the 1982 ruling is any guide, we’d say the GAO isn’t going to be getting back to the RNC anytime soon.

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