Matthewonlive and let's fly

White House Tours and Paris Hotel Bills

white-house-exterior

My life wasn't always centered around travel. My undergraduate studies were in political science and U.S. history and my first post-graduation job was in the White House Press Office. That kept me busy enough M-F, but there was just something special about being around the White House--I was only 21 and not yet jaded in my political outlook--so I also volunteered on select Saturdays to assist with White House tours.

Watching the faces of young and old stepping into the White House for the first time was a lot of fun. I loved sharing historical anecdotes and pointing out secret nooks and crannies to visitors, but what I enjoyed most was standing on the same ground that presidents had occupied since the White House was built in 1800. To think of the history made here--the momentous speeches and contentious negotiations--made the White House my favorite Saturday hangout.

The White House is the temporary home of whoever is elected president, but it belongs to the American people. Opening the White House to school groups and the public for tours marks an important right of citizens. The symbolic importance of being able to visit cannot be underscored. In a way, such visits are the essence of American democracy, that all men are created equal. We have no palaces in this country that we can only visit with the permission of the monarch.

white-house-tours  

Now, with sequester in effect, the Obama Administration has elected to eliminate White House tours, citing costs. This is an unwarranted and unnecessary move, a jejune temper-tantrum over the fact that the White House could not garner enough support for the second round of revenue increases it sought. Not that the GOP is free from blame in this debacle, but White House tours are under the purview of the White House and to say that it could not muster the $11,000/week from the Secret Service budget to continue these tours is laughable. These tours do come at taxpayer expense, but we need only examine a sampling of other federal expenditures (courtesy of the Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel) to understand why we've reached the point of sequester:

We've learned that the White House employs three calligraphers, who cumulatively earn $277,000 a year. The Environmental Protection Agency gave $141,000 to fund a Chinese study on swine manure. Part of a $325,000 National Science Foundation outlay went to building a robotic squirrel.

The government gave a $3,700 grant to build a miniature street in West Virginia—out of Legos. It shelled out $500,000 to support specialty shampoo products for cats and dogs. A San Diego outfit got $10,000 for trolley dancing. The feds last year held 894 conferences that each cost more than $100,000—$340 million altogether. But Mr. Obama is too broke to let American kids look around the White House.

Speaking of that, the tour stunt itself is turning into a PR fiasco. ABC reports the cancellations save a total of $18,000 a week. A Forbes opinion piece noted the cost of cutting the tours was equal to about two hours operating Air Force One. Speaker John Boehner twisted the knife, announcing that while Congress was also getting hit by sequester, it had planned wisely, and tours of the Capitol would continue. Come on down folks! Visit the government branch that knows how to prioritize!

To top it off, a group of cherubic sixth-graders from St. Paul's Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, became a national sensation in a YouTube video pleading with the White House to reopen tours. "The White House is our house. Please let us visit," they beg in unison. The White House hasn't yet responded, no doubt being too busy overseeing its $27 million project that helped fund pottery classes in Morocco. (No joke.)

I could point to the President's last vacation to Hawaii (cost: $4MN), his recent golf outing with Tiger Woods, or perhaps Vice President Biden's lavish $585,000 hotel bill at the InterContinental Le Grand in Paris last week. Think of the Secret Service expenses on these trips that could have been re-allocated to tours.

I've stayed at the ICH Le Grand--a great hotel to be sure--but 100 rooms? Then another $459,000 at the Hyatt Churchill in London? Of course the Vice President must be protected, but in this time of austerity an entourage of that size is simply an act of hypocrisy--do as we say, not as we do. Sequester mechanics aside, that $1MN+ in hotel costs alone would have sustained the White House tour program for at least one more year.

white-house-biden-and-obama-laughingSo the VP is living it up in Paris, the President is golfing with Tiger in Florida, and meanwhile groups of school children who had been eagerly anticipating a tour of the White House during their spring break school trips are being told that there is no money available for tours. Unless it is of Petra, Jordan.

And you wonder why I am jaded?

The House Committee on Oversight (GOP led) put out this highly partisan attack, but it makes a valid point--

The White House won't even fess up to the game they are playing. But we are all taking note of what is going on. And we see that the White House tours cancellations, FAA control tower cutbacks, DHS immigration delays, and TSA hiring freeze is all a calculated move to deliberately inflict damage on the public so that they will blame Republicans and demand change. But my gut tells me the public sees what is going on and the White House will soon regret the petty games it is playing.

I am with the students of Waverly, Iowa--there are far more logical cutbacks that can be made before White House tours are eliminated--and the President's hands are not tied. Maybe the President could have let others tour the White House instead of touring Petra himself. Is that too much to ask for?

Comments

#1
Chris March 26, 2013 at 05:45 pm

Matthew: I enjoy your blog regularly. That said, I think you'd be wise to keep your political opinions about our President to yourself. I suspect not all of your readers don't share your opinion that the President is to blame for the sequestration and its effects. While I see the tangential connection to travel in this piece (e.g., TSA hiring freeze), this reads like something I would expect to see on Drudge.

#2
Imaginary March 26, 2013 at 05:46 pm

Well part of the sequester was the notion of not being able to reallocate between programs. I am not certain of which budgetary bucket the tours were under but they could possibly be the best item to cut there, though I agree that it seems unlikely.

FAA seems more clear cut though. Faced with a budget cut they killed a lot of small ATC towers that were of questionable use anyway.

@Chris--I appreciate your comment and I understand that you may not like to hear President Obama attacked, but he deserves it here. If there is something wrong with what I wrote, let's have a discussion on that and not whether my readers wish to be exposed to my political tendencies.

I like President Obama--I've met him before, attended his inauguration earlier this year, and generally agree with him on foreign and social policy. But not on economic policy and he is wrong here--I'm sorry if pointing out some inconvenient facts sounds like the Drudge Report, but I want readers to realize how disingenuous the Administration has been on the sequester issue.

And this post is all about travel--travel to the White House for tours, travel through Paris and London and expensive hotel bills, travel to Petra, the FAA, and as you mentioned, the TSA.

#4
listen March 26, 2013 at 08:59 pm

"If there is something wrong with what I wrote, let's have a discussion"

You say the President's policy is a second round of income tax increases. That is simply not true. The President's policy offer to repeal sequestration - a policy enacted only as a result of the House Republican's unprecedented willingness to default on the public debt of the US - was to reduce spending in ways other than across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending. Specifically:

1) Reduce future social security benefits for higher lifetime earners by calculating annual benefit increases based upon the inflation of goods & services, rather than inflation of wages. 2) Reduce Medicare spending immediately and in perpetuity by paying pharmaceutical companies less for the drugs used by Medicare beneficiaries, through tough negotiated pricing that all large customers demand from vendors.
3) Reduce spending through the tax code by eliminating subsidies given to high income earners. For instance, the home mortgage interest deduction would be limited based upon median new home values, capping the subsidy the government currently gives to people with million-dollar mortgages. You are smart enough to know the spending through the tax code is exactly the same as mail a check.

You are intentionally misleading. You know better. You should grapple with your opponent's strongest agruments, you should characterize your opponent's argument's in the most persuasive way & the hardest to attack.

The President does not favor any increase in income tax rates. Every serious economist believes the federal budgets needs to be balanced by reducing both direct spending and indirect spending through the tax code.

Finally, your cherry-picking of outrage over White House tours is disgusting. Persons on unemployment this very week are getting up to 10% less than they had planned. Write an article on that.

@listen: Although the President, during the campaign, blamed the Republican House for imposing the sequester on the White House, revelations in Bob Woodward’s book, Jack Lew’s confirmation testimony, Max Baucus’s (D) interview, and Jay Carney’s confession that “The sequester was something that was discussed… and as has been reported, it was an idea that the White House put forward” confirm that President Obama was the architect of the sequester bill against which he is currently blaming Republicans.

But the POTUS's plan was not what you detail above. Instead he signed on to the Senate Dem's proposal to -

• Raise $54 billion in taxes, mostly through what Democrats call “the Buffett Rule,” to require that individuals with adjusted gross incomes above $2 million pay an effective tax rate of 30 percent.

• Raise $1 billion in revenue by ending two corporate tax breaks, one for companies that send jobs overseas and another for certain oil companies.

• Cut $27.5 billion from military spending, significantly less than under sequestration. The reductions would be delayed until American troops leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and would be phased in through fiscal year 2022.

• Save $27.5 billion by ending direct payments for farm subsidies

That was the offer he put on the table--not the nebulous cost savings you point to above.

The Republicans proposed a totally unrealistic plan of their own--

• Cut nearly $90 billion in financing to carry out Mr. Obama’s health care law.

• Save $80 billion by requiring federal employees to contribute more for their pensions.

• Repeal $70 billion for carrying out the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that tightened financial industry regulation, including its independent consumer protection bureau.

• Cut $35 billion in payments to low-income beneficiaries and states for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

• Save $17 billion by ending social services grants to the states.

• Save $7.6 billion by altering the child tax credit.

Neither side could agree so the President's sequester plan was put into effect.

#6
AS March 26, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Agree - please cut out the overly partisan commentary.

You cannot substantiate your personal opinions by adding (hatchet-job) quotes from the House GOP, from the WSJ, etc. It's hardly supporting evidence to include such partisan sources. You might as well as add expert opinion and commentary from Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

You'd be on much stronger ground if you took a neutral source - or better still MSNBC and said that even pro-President sources disagree with his priorities.

And, let's also call BS on the premise that this was about travel. This post had no place on a travel blog. Don't pretend this is related to travel because you talk about hotels in Paris and the TSA. Come on...

#7
Bring back gw March 26, 2013 at 11:25 pm

@listen. Really? Obama wants to cut taxes?

#8
listen March 27, 2013 at 01:21 am

The president first proposed a clean debt ceiling bill. Like it has been raised for the past 5 Presidents over decades, without scaring the crap out of anyone.

Then, in the face of the made-up-from-nothing rule that House Republicans imposed on the country that the debt ceiling that covers past spending can only be raised by cutting future spending an equal amount, the president proposed sequester as an alternative to default, because Rs refused to extend Bush tax cuts only for middle-class as part of a grand bargain of cost savings.
Think it through Matthew, Democrats do not advocate massive cuts to discretionary spending. The Reps held a gun to the country's head.

You leave unaswered the argument that cutting tax expenditures is cutting spending, not raising taxes. Be honest.

You finally confuse the FY14 budget process with the immediate proposals to unwind the sequester.

Your silence on unemployment benefit cuts and outrage at WH tour cuts is disgusting. I hope you never find yourself on the edge and have to do endure such pathetic demagoguery.

#9
Eddie March 27, 2013 at 05:46 am

hmmm...last time I checked all those programs that were funded were funded by CONGRESS not the President. After all, doesn't Congress have the power of the purse? Seems disingenuous to blame Obama for priorities (yes, maybe the street built of Lego is a priority for the legislator that sponsored the bill) that Congress has set money aside for. Yes, Obama can veto bills passed by Congress but we all know Congress is dysfunctional enough as it is and needs no other excuse not to work.

@AS: I maintain this is all about travel--whether in White House tours, airport security lines, airport delays due to tower shut downs, or wait times to re-enter the country--and I don't even blame the sequester fully on Obama--clearly the House Republicans wanted it more than he did. But I do cite the hypocrisy of the Administration who lives so lavishly when it travels while making the decision to cut tours because they knew it will be a high-exposure item brining attention to what they thought would be the unreasonableness of the GOP. Instead, and appropriately, the opposite has occurred. Painful budget cuts are necessary, but there was no necessity to cut inexpensive WH tours unless the point was to inconvenience (versus save money).

@Eddie: I only note that Congress has put forward forward several fixes that would restore WH tours that Harry Reid has been quick to shoot down.

@listen: We are in different times today and while the Republicans hold immense blame for overspending and warmongering during the last Administration when they also controlled Congress, our current debt trajectory is not sustainable and the current crop of GOP members of Congress + Tea Party nuts was elected on the promise that they would contain and reduce federal spending. Even if Krugman is right and we can handle more debt, there remains wasteful spending that should be excised and hopefully the pain of sequester--if it does ever occur--will lead to a serious effort to actually address the problem in a meaningful way.

Please don't tell me Obama does not want rates increased on the wealthy. You even mention the last debt-cieling compromise, which left the President furious the Bush tax cuts expired on only those making more than $400K instead of the lower $250K the POTUS wanted.

If you think the President does not want the wealthy to pay more in income taxes, you should try visiting his website--

http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/taxes

Where he still is advocating for the Buffett rule, which of course would place a minimum tax rate of 30% on those making more than $1mn per year. And his "rich can pay a little more" mantra is not limited to closing loopholes but still includes a desire to see the tax code simplified but top rates to go up.

I have no problem with rates returning to Clinton-era levels. Yes, even I think rates should go up. I have no problem closing loopholes for corporations and eliminating deductions for the well-off like the mortgage interest deduction. I'd also like to roll social security eligibility age back to at least 70 effective for all those under 60 now. I like the President's idea to negotiate for better prescription drug prices.

But the point of my post was that choosing to shut down White House tours was a voluntary and unnecessary move, a petty move, and one that hurts the President's position rather than strengthens it. And it is hypocritical.

It is actually you who confuse sequester solutions and the FY14 (though they are related) unless you are calling both me and the New York Times wrong--

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/28/us/politics/proposals-to-avoid-sequestration.html?_r=0

Finally, I do not celebrate the 10% cut in unemployment benefit cuts if that is what you are getting at.

So please don't label anything that you disagree with as "pathetic demagoguery" because the situation is not nearly as clear-cut as you're trying to convince yourself.

Here's the bottom line: the House approved a 180 billion dollar tax increase, and if it weren't for the sequester, there would be zero "cuts" to the spending in Washington. Now the President wants to cut "loopholes" before he'll make cuts to the budget. How many times does this act have to play out where Democrats promise cuts in return for increases in taxes, the increase in taxes happen, but the cuts never come? Why can't the POTUS negotiate a 180 Billion spending cut before he goes after more tax increases?

#11
StickToWhatYouKnow March 27, 2013 at 11:35 am

As Mark Twain is attributed as saying: "It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."

These grave spending injustices you describe are total red herrings. The executive branch was not given authority to decide which government accounts would be cut and which would not. Every government account had to be cut. So for example, the Secret Service operational budget had to be cut by 8.2 percent. Also, the Operating Expense of the White House had to be cut by 8.2 percent. These are totally separate from the, shampoo, caligraphers, swine manure (agriculture research had to be cut 7.6%) and other forms of hog sh#$ authorized by Republican congresses that you site as examples of wasteful spending. And all those accounts are totally separate from the Vice-President's travel account (which I'm sure had to be cut as well though I'm not sure which account it draws from).

So they could cut Biden's travel down to nothing, we could withdraw the U.S. from world affairs and science and cower in our basements watching Fox News all day so we could keep as accurately informed as you are. They'd still have to cut 8.2 percent from the budget accounts that are responsible for White House tours.

So to sum up: 1. Sorry that you don't understand how budgeting works. 2. Sorry that you don't understand how sequestration works. 3. Who gives a crap about White House tours?
4. George Bush closed the White House for 2 years after 9/11. Where was the faux-outrage over that one? Oh I forgot, all morality and indignation is situational to conservatives.

@StickToWhatYouKnow: Your petty personal insults suggest your mind is made up and you have no desire to think reasonably about this issue, but I'll address your comment anyway.

I maintain, as I wrote about on the eve of sequester, that the Administration does have much more control than it is willing to assert:

http://upgrd.com/matthew/sequester-travel-disruptions-and-the-politics-of-fear-and-intimidation.html

First off, I give a crap about White House tours. Why else would I write about them? Having worked at the White House and given tours, they mean something to me. The White House is the temporary home of whoever is elected president, but it belongs to the American people. School groups and the public touring parts of the White House are an important right of citizens. Surely you can recognize the symbolic importance of being able to do so. In a way, such visits are the essence of American democracy.

Your "but Bush..." babble is laughable. This isn't a post about Bush and if you think I am a Bush cheerleader, know that even after working for him I think he'll go down in history as one of our worst modern presidents and be stigmatized as the man who led the nation into unnecessary war. For the record, it was wrong of the White House to shut down tours after 9/11.

It seems you suffer from the intolerance that so many on the hardened left suffer from--bitter animosity toward those who disagree with their narrow outlook. It is quite sad really. I want an America that works--compromise, discipline, liberty, and equal opportunity for all. That doesn't sound like Fox News to me. I hate partisan tricks and that is what the White House tour cancelation is.

And make no mistake, I am well aware of the mechanics of sequester. I pointed to the President's golf trips and Biden's hotel bills to show that secret service expenses can be cut in other areas. The WH claimed--see the video above--that the SS chose to cut back tours as a way to save on expenses. Do you want to guess how much overtime money was spent for agents to do advance work every time the POTUS and VP travels? Eliminate one agent doing advance work (so there are two instead of three sitting around watching TV for a week before the POTUS arrives) and the tours are saved.

This is politics, and politics at its worst. If you think the President is immune, you should stop--to borrow your phraseology--cowering in your basement and watching MSNBC.

#13
listen March 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Thank you for conceding that the origin of the sequester was the sui generis Republican tactic of threatening US default as leverage to force the President to accept reductions in discretionary spending on investments and aid to the poor. I'm not sure what the alternative was for the President in response to that threat other than to suggest a sequestration policy that he believed would incentive Democrats to accept reforms to entitlements and Republican to accept Clinton-era tax rates with elimination of much tax expenditures. Would default, a bond crisis, a banking crisis, a new recession resulting from US not paying treasury bond holders have been a better choice?

The Buffett rule is spending reduction becomes it eliminates tax expenditures. Some wealthy pay lower than ordinary marginal income tax rates because the weathy utilize tax expediture loopholes (like carried interest, huge mortgage interest deduction, $100M in. romney IRA when the limit is $6K per year) to reduce their effective tax rate. The Buffett rule bluntly reduces this tax expenditure by having these wealthy taxpayers pay closer to but still less than their 39.6 ordinary income tax rate. You are smart enough to see that this policy is honestly a "raise in income tax."

Where is your column of outrage for the recently liad off 50 year old father of 3 who will have to choose between food & utilities in April after an unexpected 10% cut in benefits? Your choice to focus on a trivial matter of White Hours tours instead of the real pain aboutmto be inflicted is disgusting.

#14
StickToWhatYouKnow March 27, 2013 at 01:47 pm

You say, "make no mistake, I am well aware of the mechanics of sequester". Then why did you include this sentence in your original post that shows complete ignorance of how it works:

"But let me highlight a few cutbacks that could have been made in other areas before sacrificing tours..."

And then directly afterward you quote an article laying out supposedly wasteful NSF funding, EPA funding, conferences, miniature streets, blah blah blah. None of these could have been cut by Obama to allow tours.

You seem like a smart person. I just have a problem with certainty and/or demagoguery based on misinformation, especially among people who ought to know better. Sorry if you mistake that for hardened left.

ps. I do not watch cable news of any flavor because there is no accountability on any channel for being spectacularly opinionated and factually wrong. For some reason I had come to expect more from your blog.

@StickToWhatYouKnow: The sequester mess comes because we have failed to make smart cuts in areas like the ones I highlighted in my original post (as well as revenue increases) over the last several years. It doesn't help that we've fought wars we cannot afford and cut taxes instead of securing SS and paying down our debt. In my original post, I was not making an argument of immediate tradeoffs but of long-term priorities that have led to the cutbacks we now face. The snippet of wasteful spending highlighted in the WSJ piece is merely a small sampling of the way in which tax dollars are wasted.

But the demagoguery regarding WH tours (and there is more than enough demagoguery to go around, sadly) is coming only from the White House, in my humble opinion.

p.s. I don't own a TV...I do read the NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, and WSJ every day.

#16
Jamie March 28, 2013 at 09:20 am

If we are going to fix the mess that we are in, we need to actually be able to talk about issues in a somewhat rational way. And avoid having every discussion devolve into a broad ideological discussion. Matt seems to me like he makes a good point, (although I never like those lists of research funding, i.e. robotic squirrel, because I don't know what that really means and who knows how ridiculous glow-in-the-dark sticks or CDs or the Internet sounded in the early stages of their research). I know that if this was Bush, I would be outraged that he cancelled white house tours. So, even if I'm willing to give Obama more of the benefit of the doubt, it sounds pretty lame to me. And it's obviously not a lot of money, so come on, figure out how to keep the tours going and find the money elsewhere. On a side note, I realize we have to do something to shore up social security, but raising the age to 70 is harsh. I also find it annoying that in any proposed changes, current or near term retires are said to be immune, or grandfathered in. It may not be politically feasible, but it is current and near term retires who are enjoying benefits that are more generous than we can afford, so a small rollback for them (perhaps means tested) is the fair thing to do, as part of a larger fix. Even though I wouldn't jump right in and agree with Matt, this is the kind of discussion we need to have. Between rational people on the right and rational people on the left. But, then again, this is a travel blog... A white house tour does sound nice, though. Hope they come back before our kids are old enough to make a trip to Washington DC.

#17
John-Paul March 28, 2013 at 10:11 am

I like the fact that this isn't a political blog... Not a big fan of where this post takes it, and where the comments have gone as well. Let's get away from politics and back to travel. = )

#18
LT March 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm

It's your blog and you are free to write whatever you want, and have whatever opinion you want. It's my time, and I am free to spend it how I want -- and I expect to spend less time here. I check in on your blog for travel info, not political opinion. I can get more than enough of that other places.

#19
Larry April 2, 2013 at 04:38 am

Money for April Fools jokes, but not tours.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50143984n

#20
John April 2, 2013 at 02:56 pm

Just to clear something up, the VPs travel "bill" for Paris and London was under a contract vehicle known as an IDIQ, Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity. This does NOT mean that the bill for both was 1 million buck plus, it means that the two hotels have the ability to bill the government up to those amounts for the specified number of nights. The government dos NOT have to pay the full value of the contract, it just means that over the period of the IDIQ, the hotel has a contract with the government to deliver services without having to go through the bidding/contacting process each time the government needs a block of hotel rooms. Not seeing the actual IDIQ, I am betting it may be for more than one visit over some period of years.

As a side note, the Federal permitted per diem for London is 475 per day inclusive. Multiplying the per diem by the number of hotel nights in the IDIQ (893) you come out to 424K. All within reason if you include the meeting spaces, prep rooms etc.

I am not justifying the IDIQ, but just wanted to include some facts for both "sides" to have a basis for discussion.

#21
PK April 3, 2013 at 01:41 pm

I was initially going to criticize Matt for getting political because I don't think it behooves the purpose of his travel blog. His recent issue with United was relevant since it was travel related and he handled that issue diplomatically.

In this case, it's relevant to observe the impact of the sequester on travel and tourism, such as white house tours and egg rolls, and to hold the administration accountable. The sequester is a small cut in new spending so legacy customer-facing services such as TSA staffing, white house tours, etc. are theoretically pre-funded. Obama and bureaucrats cutting those services is like refusing to send money for the policeman's ball and them refusing to patrol your neighborhood because of "budget cuts". As Matt has observed, it's undermined public confidence in big government to properly allocate funds.

I'm reminded of another topic where Matt was asking about what airports in the USA could do better and there's a lot such as international transit areas, etc. but our dysfunctional government is unable to do such things. The unionized TSA was created under Bush's administration. There's a variety of reasons for this which would generate a massive argument but it's useful, for now, just to observe that there's an problem with government functioning effectively and raising spending won't fix it. Funding (raising taxes or the deficit) is a separate issue.

Hmmm, this does tie to Matt's experience with United kind of. His issue generated publicity and got a response and even feedback within the organization. There was genuine growth occurring. This situation invites similar introspection from those in government with stable, well paying jobs and their customers (us) as to how we move forward.

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