Each new day summons the same old clichés when it comes to fuel costs: "Record Gas Prices"..."Pain at the Pump"..."Record Gas Prices Make for More Pain at the Pump."
Last month, though, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran intriguing front-page stories detailing how high gas prices may not exactly be hurting the budgets of the people who set the energy agenda: our federal lawmakers.
A longstanding rule allows all 435 members of the House of Representatives to lease a vehicle of their choice and have the tab picked up by taxpayers, the stories reported. The car funds come out of each representative's million-dollar annual office budget. General maintenance, insurance, registration, excess mileage fees — and, yes, gas — are all covered.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, more than 130 congressmen take advantage of the perk, which applies to vehicles used only in their districts. (Those who opt out can be reimbursed at 55 cents per mile for official travel in their own cars.) Some, including Missouri and Illinois lawmakers, drive gas guzzlers.
According to 2007 records collected by the watchdog (.pdf file), Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt leases a 2007 Chevy K1500 Tahoe for $965.13 a month. Missouri Rep. Samuel Graves tools around in a 2003 Buick LeSabre for $650 a month, while Illinois Rep. Jerry Costello uses a 2006 Jeep Cherokee with a monthly payment of $706.40.
"We see these leases as a potential indicator of how a member of Congress would treat the big budget," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "If you're irresponsible with your own office budget, how are you going to treat the federal budget?"
Ellis adds: "I think there are some instances where lawmakers getting a relatively inexpensive lease, say for $200 a month, may end up getting a better deal for the taxpayers than if they took the 55-cent reimbursement. But when you start getting closer to a grand a month for a lease payment, it becomes harder and harder to believe that's actually the wisest and most efficient use of funding."
Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II also uses the leasing program, spending approximately $900 a month for a late-1990s-model Ford Econoline, according to spokesman Danny Rotert. In its previous life, the van ferried passengers around the Kansas City International Airport. Now, it runs on cooking grease recycled from Kansas City restaurant kitchens, getting ten miles to the gallon at a cost of 70 cents a gallon. Rotert says the lease is pricey because the representative doesn't have a district office; the van doubles as a mobile office, replete with DVD player, fax machine and so on.
It's an approach to the road and recycling that Cleaver would like his fellow lawmakers to replicate. And many will soon be required to make drastic changes, with Cleaver to thank. Last August, the congressman was successful in getting passed an amendment to the energy bill which requires any representative using the federally funded car benefit to lease a vehicle that runs on alternative fuels.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Cleaver's amendment barely squeaked through last year. The votes came across partisan lines (Democrats for, Republicans against), but after only a brief debate. The amendment received scant attention until this spring, when lawmakers suddenly began carping about having to give up their big cars.
"They want their Lexuses and their Cadillacs," Cleaver told the Los Angeles Times. "I just think it's a poor example for us to spend so much time talking about energy independence and global warming and presenting to the people an image of fat cats living the fat life."
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a list of approved vehicles for the program before the end of 2008.
According to the EPA's current Greenhouse Gas Score, which is part of its online Green Vehicle Guide, Blunt's Tahoe and Costello's Jeep each score a four on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most environmentally friendly. Graves' Buick nets a six. Cleaver's Ford is not listed because the database only rates cars dating to 2000.
Nick Simpson, press secretary for Rep. Blunt, says the rural makeup of Blunt's southwestern Missouri district, as well as his position as House Republican Whip, necessitates a large car. "The vehicle was leased for the security detail, the congressman and staff," says Simpson. "We couldn't get around in a Mini Cooper or a Prius."
Simpson added: "Most members aren't getting insane, lavish cars. They're getting regular, American-made vehicles with leases that are more expensive than your average lease because they are condensed into the two-year term of a congressman."
For the record, Blunt drives the most popular vehicle among congressmen. Sixteen representatives drive the Chevy Tahoe or its equivalent, the GMC Yukon. Both trucks get fourteen miles to the gallon in the city and nineteen on the highway.