Government Spending

Dick's Power Trip

When the veep goes hunting, who foots the bill?

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It began like any other vacation: The deputy to the most powerful man on earth hunting birds raised in captivity on the ranch of a wealthy landowner with ties to the Republican party. Who could have foreseen the avalanche of bad press? Days later, pundits were questioning Cheney's character and reporters were puzzling over disclosure issues.

Happily, Cheney managed not to shoot any fellow travelers: The year was 2003, and Vice President Cheney was hunting in Louisiana with his pal Antonin Scalia. While Cheney appeared to wine and dine a Supreme Court Justice, watchdog groups pointed out the inconvenient fact that Cheney had a case pending on the Supreme Court. Close readers may have noticed that it wasn't actually Cheney treating Scalia to first class transport, but the ever-hospitable taxpayers: Both Cheney and Scalia took Air Force Two on January 5, followed by a second jet packed with staffers and security and a matching pair of Black Hawk helicopters for good measure.

At the time, Cheney's aides defended the vice president's right to take government jets to vacation spots. "The vice president is on duty 24 hours, seven days a week," Cheney spokesperson Kevin Kellems explained to the L.A. Times. Translation: Dick Cheney is never on vacation, and therefore you can pay for his non-vacation vacation.

Three years later, a second quail hunt has spawned a different outcry. Cheney's decision to wait to reveal that he had accidentally shot 78-year-old Austin attorney Harry M. Whittington, and then to share the news through hunting party host Katherine Armstrong in a call to a local newspaper, has left an angry press sparring with the Vice President's aides and various defenders. ("He's an absolute expert shot," longtime friend and former Sen. Alan Simpson insisted to Wolf Blitzer, an interesting defense of a Vice President who had just shot a friend in the face.) On Wednesday, the Vice President agreed to speak out in what promised to be a very special episode of Special Report with Brit Hume, but Cheney denied America it's Oprah moment: defending his decision to wait even while expressing concern for the bedridden Whittington.

The finances surrounding the vice president's latest hunting trip are murky, though a bizarrely precise February 13 statement put to rest any national concerns about a $7 stamp owed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, bravely disclosing every facet of Stampgate even before lefty blogs could pounce. The statement, which made no mention of the fact that the president had shot a man during said trip, did note that "A member of the Vice President's staff wrote a check for 140 dollars understanding that this would purchase a Texas non-resident season hunting license," and "The staff asked for all permits needed," both of which suggest that the V.P's office doubles as a travel agency during hunting season.

With such a cozy mixing of official and unofficial veep business, it would be instructive to know a little more about who paid for what during the Cheney-Whittington-Anderson hunting flap. But in this age of the soul-baring tell-all, Cheney isn't one for public confession, especially when it's time to explain who is paying how much to get him to the undisclosed locations at which he stays for indeterminate periods of time.

Cheney's travel disclosure habits are nothing if not consistent; as Alex Knott, political editor at the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity explained to me yesterday, "Cheney has not filled any disclosure forms about any group paying for any travel since he has entered office." Under the 1989 Ethics Reform Act, President Bush and other heads of agencies are supposed to file reports with the Office of Government Ethics detailing who is paying for their travel, food, and lodging. Cheney's office doesn't. Why? The Vice President's Office, according to the Center for Public Integrity, labels all trips "official travel." It then bills taxpayers rather than accept private funds.

That could indicate an aversion to lobbyist-funded travel on the part of Cheney's office. Knott has a different interpretation: Cheney and his aides still meet with lobbyists, but use taxpayer dollars for travel, food, and lodging to evade disclosure rules. According to the Center, such "official business" has included 23 speeches to think tanks and trade organizations and 16 to colleges and universities, all of which are typically paid for with private means. Is there any unofficial travel in the Vice President's life? "It's unclear," says Knott, part of the problem being that taxpayers are not privy to past whereabouts of government jets.

"One of the problems we have as a government is our inability to keep secrets," Cheney explained to Hume yesterday. But the Vice President—a man we know chiefly through his various heart attacks and his ability to inflict them on others—has never had this problem. As of Thursday, Cheney was sporting a healthy scowl and Whittington was doing just fine. The only casualties, when the dust and birdshot have settled, will be a few quail, beltway egos, and a promise of open government.