Recently, Speaker of the House Pelosi has made news for “demanding’ a military aircraft be made available for her travel between Washington D.C. and her home district. Various articles have been penned, much has been said on talk radio and various media outlets, and there has been a lot of finger pointing. It hard to determine the exact facts in this case, how much of what has been printed is true, and how much is political hyperbole and damage control after the fact. Nevertheless, one question remains.
Why does the Speaker of the House rate a military jet (at taxpayer expense) for transportation between their home and Washington D.C.? Why can’t the Speaker take a commercial plane like other congresscritters do?
As it turns out, there is no long-standing tradition of providing military transportation for the Speaker. In fact, only one other has had this particular “perk”; former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. And even he didn’t rate such privilege until after 9/11.
Immediately after 9/11, all commercial airports were closed. At the time, it was unknown if additional attacks were planned, and how long the airports would remain shut down. This left congresscritters, like all other Americans, stranded.
But as Congress has repeatedly demonstrated, they are not like all other Americans. And they frequently find a way around, or exempt themselves from things that other Americans have no choice but to endure. Mr. Hastert petitioned the DoD for airlift support, citing airport closures, and his position in the presidential succession (the Speaker of the House is next in line after the Vice-President).
As the Speaker does not rate Secret Service protection, despite being only two heartbeats away from the presidency; one wonders at the leap of logic that he/she should rate what in essence amounts to a private jet for “security reasons”. How far down the presidential succession chain should such things stop? The President pro-tempore of the Senate is next on the list; should he/she have one as well? And the airport closure argument should have been a non-starter. After all, his fellow congresscritters were in exactly the same boat, and they didn’t get private government jets.
Perhaps it’s only because it never occurred to them to try.
In any event, the DoD acquiesced, and made available from 89th Airlift Wing assets, a C-20 airframe to provide “shuttle service” between Washington D.C. and his home district in Illinois.
Evidently, this was not wide-spread common knowledge, as Ms. Pelosi only discovered this perk in December 2006, when it was mentioned to her by the House Sergeant-At-Arms. Once she did, she decided that if it was good enough for the former Speaker it was certainly good enough for her, and requested that the Air Force provide her with the same service they did Mr. Hastert.
And they did, making available the same C-20 that Mr. Hastert had been using. The problem is that while Mr. Hastert lived in Illinois, about 700 miles away, Ms. Pelosi’s home district is in San Francisco. The C-20 may have to stop and refuel along the way, and Ms. Pelosi doesn’t want to stop. She insists she needs to be able to travel non-stop “for security reasons”. It’s only fair; Speaker Hastert didn’t have to make refueling stops along the way.
The spec sheet on the C-20 says that its max range is 4250 miles, which would seem more than sufficient to fly the 2800 miles from Andrews AFB where the planes are stationed, to San Francisco. Of course, like the EPA mileage figures on your car, actual results may vary; your mileage may be different. The actual range depends on many factors such as the load the plane is carrying (more people and baggage equate to more fuel expended per mile and a corresponding reduction in range), the weather conditions, and the mechanical state of the individual aircraft. You also need to have enough reserve for any detours that may be required, (like climbing above a storm, or going under one – it takes more fuel to fly at low altitude than high altitude, because the air is denser at low altitude), and for the possibility that you may not be able to land immediately at your destination.
Depending on weather and loading conditions, it may not even be possible to take off with a full fuel load in the first place.
And you can bet that as Speaker, and next in line behind the Vice President in the presidential succession, the Air Force is not going to cut corners when it comes to flight safety. Nor will they risk a valuable aircraft and flight crew. Ms. Pelosi’s wishes to the contrary, if the pilot feels it necessary to stop and refuel, they will stop and refuel. In fact, those decisions will probably be made before the plane even leaves the ground. The objective is to get Ms. Pelosi safely home and on the ground. Auguring in at the airport is not an acceptable delivery method.
As a result, the aircraft may be able to make the trip non-stop, but there are no guarantees. In particular, headwinds can drastically reduce aircraft range. This happens more often during the winter. As the prevailing winds blow from west to east they aid in increasing range when traveling in the other direction, so making a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Andrews during the winter is more probable than the reverse.
It has been reported that Ms. Pelosi has insisted that she be provided transport on the C-32, a specially configured version of the Boeing 757-200 commercial airliner. This particular airframe is equipped with palatial accommodations which is not surprising as it is officially Air Force Three. While it can certainly make the trip non-stop, it also costs an estimated $22,000 per hour to fly (fuel costs only). For her part, Ms. Pelosi has stated that this is false; that all she has requested is an aircraft that can make the trip non-stop.
In reality, if the requirement to fly non-stop is chiseled in stone, her options are very limited. There are only four airframes to choose from in any event, all four of which have been tasked with and built for the job of transporting high-ranking government and DoD officials. There is the C-20, which Hastert used, and which Ms. Pelosi finds inadequate; there is the C-21, which is even smaller than the C-20, and correspondingly shorter ranged – obviously inadequate since it definitely can’t make the trip unrefueled, and of course, the C-32 mentioned above.
There is also the C-37A, the military version of the Gulfstream V. It has more than sufficient range (6300 miles) to make the trip, although it appears to be the same size as the C-20, and seats the same number of passengers (12). A military source at Andrews, who asked to remain anonymous, reportedly speculated that perhaps Ms. Pelosi and her aides were shown a C-37 and did not understand that it was capable of making the trip since visually it appears so similar to the C-20 which cannot reliably do so.
I personally have a couple of problems with this entire deal. First it is my opinion that her “security” argument fails on its face. Presumably, a military jet would refuel at a military installation. And if we have a problem with maintaining security on a military installation within the continental United States whereby any government official would be in fear of their lives, we certainly have a very large problem indeed.
Even if the plane were to be refueled at a civilian airport, it is unlikely that it would happen at any of the same terminals that we plebeians use; those are already booked for regularly scheduled flights. It’s more likely she would end up at a more remote airport location, reserved for executive aircraft where tighter security would be possible. And even if she did end up at a regular terminal, if we have “security issues” in the part of the terminal where the passengers gather to board aircraft (this would be after they have undergone security screening) then perhaps this is yet another issue, five years after 9/11 no less, that we need to address.
My personal opinion: Ms Pelosi just doesn’t want to be personally inconvenienced. She doesn’t want to spend boring time on the ground with nothing to do while she is waiting for her plane to be gassed up.
Perhaps she should get a video game to occupy her time. Or read a good book.
It seems to me that when you are getting something for free, you really shouldn’t complain. The old adage “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” comes to mind, or perhaps “you get what you pay for”. It may not be the best, but it isn’t costing you anything.
However my second problem with this is even more profound: Why are we doing it in the first place? It has nothing to do with Pelosi (whom I don’t particularly care for) being a Democrat and Hastert (who, incidentally, I don’t particularly care for either – though in his case this is primarily because I don’t know very much about him except that I thought he could have done a better job as Speaker) being a Republican. I just don’t see why the job of Speaker should carry with it your own private jet paid for at taxpayer expense.
Was there any intention that this privilege, extended during a time of crisis, be made a permanent perk of office?
In truth, I believe that Speaker Hastert’s justification was rather weak as well. Everyone else was having problems getting from D.C. to their home districts. Why should being Speaker entitle one to extra privilege in that regard? And it is my opinion that the security issue is bogus as well. Perhaps in the days immediately following 9/11 it could be justified. But that was five years ago. Air traffic has returned to normal. We have implemented tighter security. The threat is no greater than it is for any member of Congress, or the traveling public for that matter.
After you get past the Vice President, presidential succession is pretty much interchangeable anyway. One may have disagreements regarding the individual, but as far as the office goes, one is pretty much the same as another. Next after the Speaker of the House is the President pro tempore of the Senate. Anyone know who that is? Anyone care? And after that we start getting into people who don’t even hold elected office; the Secretary of State (yes, there is a way that Condi could be president, even if she doesn’t want to run for office), the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense (yes, it was possible for Alexander Haig to get his finger on the button), Attorney General, and the list goes on. Even the Secretary of Education is on the list (if any of you watch the new Battlestar Galactica series, you can see where they got that from). The list is rounded out by, last but not least, the Secretary of Homeland Defense.
The purpose of the presidential line of succession is to ensure that someone can take over the reins of office. In the history of the country, it has never passed beyond the Vice-President. Originally (1792), the Speaker and President pro tempore were reversed in the line of succession. In 1886 they were both dropped, only to be added back in 1947 in the order they currently appear.
During the Watergate scandal, as currently, the President and Vice-President were both Republicans, while the Speaker, Carl Albert, was a Democrat. At the time a situation arose where the Vice President was removed from office, leaving the Speaker next in line. Had President Nixon also been removed as well was highly possible, and as no Vice President had yet been appointed (and confirmed by the Senate, as required), Senator Albert, a member of the opposing party would have become temporary President, and would have been empowered to fill the remainder of President Nixon’s term (3 years). At that time, Albert “openly questioned whether it was appropriate for him, a Democrat, to assume the powers and duties of the presidency when there was a public mandate for the presidency to be held by a Republican.” 
One wonders if Speaker Pelosi would have the same qualms.
In any event, I believe it is time for this “perk” to be disposed of. It should have been disposed of once the situation that gave rise to it, the immediate chaos in the aftermath of 9/11, was laid to rest. To me it really doesn’t matter much if in the absence of the President and Vice President, whether succession passes to the Speaker, the President pro tempore of the Senate or the Secretary of Homeland Security.. Or the Secretary of Education, for that matter. I didn’t vote for any of them for the office.
If we leave this perk in place, it will become permanent. It will ultimately become yet another unnecessary drain on the taxpayer’s pocketbook, and just one more thing to make our elected officials believe that they are superior to the rest of us.