By Johnathan Weisman
The Bush administration's ongoing Social Security blitz is unusual in scale in the selling of a domestic policy, mobilizing the president and vice president, four Cabinet secretaries and 17 lesser officials, down to an associate director of strategic planning for the White House budget office.
It also may be one of the most costly in memory, well into the millions of dollars, according to some rough, unofficial calculations.
House Appropriations Committee Republicans have quietly asked the administration for an accounting of its "60 Stops in 60 Days" blitz. And yesterday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, formally asked the Government Accountability Office not only for the cost but also "whether the Bush Administration has crossed the line from education to propaganda."
"No one disputes the right of the President to make his policy recommendations known to Congress and the public," Waxman wrote in a letter to U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker. "Yet there is a vital line between legitimately informing the public, as the President did in his State of the Union address, and commandeering the vast resources of the federal government to fund a political campaign for Social Security privatization."
Administration officials do not deny the Social Security campaign constitutes an extraordinary legislative push, certainly the largest since President Bill Clinton rolled out his national health care plan. But, they say, the issue of Social Security's solvency demands no less. Besides, White House and Treasury officials said, the president and his Cabinet travel all the time. For these 60 days, they will simply have a common theme.
Thirty five days into the 60-day push, administration officials have held 123 events in 35 states. Participants range from President Bush and Vice President Cheney to Noam Neusner, associate director for strategic planning at the Office of Management and Budget, and Michel N. Korbey, a senior adviser to the Social Security Administration.
Events could be anything from a full-blown presidential address to a meeting between Eric Stewart, a deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and the Gaston County, N.C., Chamber of Commerce to Neusner's B'nai B'rith breakfast in Baltimore.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce William H. Lash has ventured to the Northeastern Wisconsin Trade Conference in Green Bay. Timothy Bitsberger, the assistant Treasury secretary for financial markets, may be accustomed to conclaves of Wall Street bond traders, but on March 22 he was talking about Social Security in Oxford, Miss.
The Treasury Department has hired four full-time employees to help run the show, including establishing a new Web site, www.strengtheningsocialsecurity.gov, and a war room, dubbed the Social Security Information Center. Yesterday, Treasury held a first-ever "radio day," opening its ornate Cash Room and 28 administration officials to nearly 30 radio talk-show hosts.
"Strengthening Social Security for future generations is a top priority for this administration, and the policy campaign underway reflects that," Treasury spokesman Robert Nichols said.
The administration has declined to estimate the cost of the entire operation. Nichols said four Treasury officials, including Secretary John W. Snow, are flying coach on commercial airlines at the government rate, pulling funds from the department's $3 million travel budget.
The White House, Social Security Administration, Small Business Administration and departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Commerce are tapping their own travel budgets. According to the law, each agency will report to Congress at the end of each quarter the costs of senior officials' travel.
Those costs have not escaped congressional attention.
"Currently, no one in Congress or the public knows the full extent and cost of the federal resources being devoted to promoting the President's Social Security agenda," Waxman wrote.
Even Republicans raised their eyebrows when they heard new employees were brought on for the campaign, said a House Republican staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid embarrassing the president.
The costs are likely to be substantial. A rough calculation of commercial fares for the administration's travels tops $15,000 for the scheduled speakers, but that does not count their entourages.
In 2000, when jet fuel prices were lower, the GAO estimated that flying Air Force One cost $54,100 per hour, or $60,250 in today's dollars. So far, the president has traveled to Indiana, New Jersey, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa and West Virginia. That is enough, by commercial schedules, to take at least 30 hours, or $1.8 million.
A C-137C, which the vice president generally travels on, cost $10,300 per hour to operate, or $11,470 today. Cheney's travels on the Social Security tour have taken him to Bakersfield, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; Battle Creek, Mich., and Pittsburgh, enough to keep a commercial flight in the air 14 hours, at a cost of $160,580.
Excluding security and aircraft costs, the White House has estimated that staff costs on presidential trips average between $22,000 and $59,000, the Associated Press has reported. Staff costs for Bush's 16 Social Security events thus would range from $352,000 to $944,000.