Today's Washington Times has an interesting article that's attracting virtually no attention in the MSM. Seems that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is leaning on the Air Force to make a C-32 transport available for trips between Washington and her district in San Francisco. Times' reporter Rowan Scarborough has learned that one of Pelosi's key Congressional allies--Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha--has been urging the Air Force to meet Pelosi's demands, and (according to one source) accused the military of sexism by not immediately approving the speaker's request.
Pelosi's demand for a large jet is simply outrageous, but a little background is in order. After 9-11, then-speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois was given access to a smaller, commuter-style jet, for travels between his district and Washington. Use of the aircraft was provided due to "security concerns," according to the Times. Since the Democrats took control of Congress last month, members of Pelosi's staff and her House allies have been pressuring the Pentagon to make the C-32 available for the speaker's travels. The C-32 is the military equivalent of a Boeing 757-200, with seating for up to 45 people (in very comfortable conditions), a crew of 16, and a range of more than 5,000 miles. Pelosi reportedly plans to use the aircraft to transport herself, family members, Congressional staffers and other Congressmen, between the nation's capitol and the West Coast. Needless to say, the cost of operating the C-32 is higher than the business jets used by Hastert after 9-11, or the cost of commercial travel, which was utilized by previous speakers.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the new speaker's request for the larger aircraft; one of them even dubbed the jet "Pelosi One." But the GOP is not without sin in this matter; in fact, the entire jet controversy is nicely described by one anonmyous DoD official, who says that Congress views the Air Force VIP jet fleet (based mostly at Andrews AFB), as "their Hertz rent-a-car." Members of the House and Senate frequently use the aircraft for "fact-finding" trips to various locales around the globe, on the taxpayers' dime. The Air Force is only too happy to comply; meeting Congressional transporation requests is a good way to ensure funding for more important, service-related programs. I'm told the VIP/special airlift program is run out of the office of the Air Force's Vice Chief of Staff, offering some indication of the importance attached to those Congressional missions. Air Force and House staffers are currently working to "reconcile" the Pelosi request, with existing laws governing the use of VIP aircraft. That tells me the Speaker is going to get her C-32, one way or the other.
Ms. Pelosi may be third in line for succession to the presidency, but she doesn't need a Boeing 757 airframe for trips to California. A much smaller jet--say, a C-21--should more than suffice. If additional staffers, family members and Democratic operatives need to make the trip, then let the speaker dig into her well-lined pockets and buy them an airline ticket. Not only is Ms. Pelosi a multi-millionaire; as a member of Congress, she also receives a transportation allowance each year, intended specifically for that sort of travel.
If House Republicans are genuinely interested in reforming the VIP airlift program, they might consider capping the number of aircraft in the fleet, and better accountability on how those jets are used. For every "legitimate" mission flown by these aircraft, there are too many flights that are nothing more than a waste of resources. But I'm guessing that the GOP minority won't pursue this matter very far. Assuming that Pelosi's request for the C-32 is approved--and the Republicans retake the House in 2008 or 2010--the next GOP speaker would probably like to have the aircraft as his private jet, too.