If you're near Andrews AFB in the Washington, DC area (or MacDill AFB in Tampa) later this week, look up and watch. You'll see hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars fly by, in close formation.
The money is being spent to fly Congress to Florida for the funeral of long-time representative C.W. "Bill" Young, who died last week at the age of 82. Mr. Young spent 43 years in the House of Representatives, and served as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1999-2005. During his long career in Congress, Young was known as a tireless champion of the U.S. military and veterans' causes. He was the longest-serving Republican in the House at the time of his death.
By all accounts, Congressman Young was an able public servant, and deserving of an appropriate send-off from friends and colleagues. So, it's not surprising that Congressional leaders decided to suspend the current session for a couple of days, so members could attend Mr. Young's funeral. Nothing wrong with that.
But there's something disconcerting about plans for getting Congressmen and Senators to Florida for the memorial service. It was announced today that the Air Force will fly the Congressional contingent to the Sunshine State, so they can pay last respects to their late colleague. That certainly simplifies transportation arrangements for the trip, but it also incurs a rather large tab for the taxpayer.
Let's say 150 members of the House and Senate decide to attend Mr. Young's funeral; given his decades of service, that sort of turn-out wouldn't be unprecedented. So, you've got to fly scores of members from both chambers to Florida, along with a smaller number of staffers. For argument's sake, we'll put the total contingent at 200. By mobilizing most of its C-32 fleet (five of six aircraft), the Air Force can get the group from Andrews to Tampa (and back again) for "only" $847,920.
Figure it this way: each C-32 (the military version of a Boeing 757) seats 45 people very comfortably. So, you need five C-32s to haul the Congressional delegation to Florida. It costs $42,396 to operate a single C-32 for one hour of flying time; round-trip between Andrews and MacDill is just over four hours. So, it will cost the taxpayers at least $169,584 for each C-32 flight, and a whopping $847,920 for five aircraft. That assumes, of course, that the Air Force can muster five C-32s, since those aircraft are sometimes out of service for maintenance, or assigned to other missions.
Other options for the trip include the VC-25, the Boeing 747 that has the callsign of Air Force One when the President is on-board. The VC-25 has room for 75 passengers, but it's operating cost is pegged at $181,000 a hour. So, the cost of flying that jet to Tampa is somewhere around $750,000. The Air Force also has a fleet of business jets, including Gulfstream IIIs and G550s, which can carry up to 19 passengers--at a cost of $32,000 per flying hour. Obviously, you'd need quite a few business jets to ferry the Congressional delegation to Florida, but hey, when you've just raised the debt limit (again), who's going to quibble over a paltry million or so?
Are there cheaper options? If it was up to us, we'd cram the legislative group into the cargo bay of a C-17 transport, in troop seats, with a grumpy loadmaster passing out box lunches. A single C-17 can carry up to 134 passengers in that configuration, so you'd only need a couple of Globemaster IIIs to carry the Congressmen (and women) to Tampa. And at $23,000 per flying hour, it's a relative bargain. Of course, our legislative betters wouldn't stand for those spartan accomodations, so don't expect the Capitol Hill crowd to travel in C-17s.
We should also mention that any member of Congress can purchase a round-trip ticket from Reagan National to Tampa International for for an average of $468, on USAir or Jet Blue, with plenty of convenient departure and return flight options. Total cost for flying 200 Congressmen and staffers to Florida? Only $93,600, roughly the cost of 30 minutes flying time on a VC-25. If the delegation is smaller, the savings to the taxpayer would be even greater. But then again, this is the same "group" that voted a $174,000 death benefit to the widow of a recently-deceased U.S. Senator who left an estate valued at $50 million. They will provide a similar gratuity to Congressman Young's wife in the coming weeks. Saving money isn't exactly at the top of their agenda.
Bill Young deserves to be remembered as a dedicated and honorable public servant who did much for the men and women who wear the nation's uniform. But it's also a shame that the public observation of his life brings out the worst in Congress, which is happy to stick taxpayers with a huge bill for military airlift, instead of traveling like The Rest of Us.
ADDENDUM: Reader Vigilis reminds us that Congress adopted new austerity measures earlier this year, aimed at reducing their use of military aircraft. Naturally, those restrictions went out the window when large delegations flew to Hawaii for the funeral of Senator Daniel Inouye, and to New Jersey for services honoring the late Senator Frank Lautenberg. So, when a ranking Republican member died, the GOP was happy to follow protocol, and requested VIP airlift from the USAF.
One more note: while the aircraft used to ferry Congressmen around the world belong to Air Mobility Command (AMC), the actual flights are coordinated through the office of the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Larry Spencer. Nothing unusual about that; the vice chief has been the point man for VIP flights for decades. Can't leave those missions up to some low-ranking staff officer; after all, the Air Force is keenly aware of who approves its budget, so when Congress needs a jet for a funeral or junket, the service is only happy to comply.