Money and Democracy

Published — October 22, 2010 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Obama cabinet officials visit swing districts in final weeks before Nov. 2 election


Earlier this month in Orlando, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan unveiled a $1.56 million grant to install energy-efficient appliances in a local affordable housing complex. At his side was Democratic freshman Rep. Alan Grayson, who faces a tight re-election race.

Because Donovan’s Oct. 12 appearance was designated by HUD as an official event, taxpayers paid for his travel to Florida. But it also made for a good press opportunity and photo op for Grayson, highlighting his work to bring home the bacon.

A Center for Public Integrity examination of cabinet members’ travel this month reveals that four Obama cabinet secretaries have travelled the country to appear in the home districts of endangered Democratic incumbents ahead of the Nov. 2 election. In some cases, they spoke at events highlighting federal spending on local projects.

In addition to Donovan’s visit, these included:

  • Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Oct. 12 appearance in New Salem, N.D. with nine-term Rep. Earl Pomeroy to tour a local high school and discuss rural education;
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s Oct. 14 visit to Tracy, Cal. to appear with Reps. Dennis Cardoza, Jim Costa, and Jerry McNerney for groundbreaking on an aqueduct project that received $15.8 million in stimulus funds;
  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s Oct. 14 trip to a Cincinnati-area college with freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus;
  • Chu’s Oct. 15 stop in Massillon, Ohio to visit an environmentally-friendly food manufacturing plant with freshman Rep. John Boccieri;
  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s Oct. 16 “environmental justice” bus tour with four members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Oakland, Cal. Joined by Reps. Barbara Lee, Laura Richardson and Diane Watson of California, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Jackson highlighted several local environmental advocacy groups selected to receive $25,000 federal grants;
  • Salazar’s Oct. 19 trip to Las Vegas, where he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid watched a groundbreaking ceremony for an electricity transmission line. After the event, the Department of Energy announced a $350 million loan guarantee for the project.

The notion of cabinet officials jetting off for official department events in areas where a Democratic candidate just happens to be in a tough race is problematic, said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Cabinet members’ travel to discuss administrative initiatives can be legitimate, Ellis notes, but such travel is inappropriate “when it is clearly targeted at shoring up vulnerable candidates in the waning days of an election cycle.

“Often there is a fig leaf of official business, but in reality it is an effort to tout some recent spending or policy decision that might benefit the favored candidate. That is not an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”

In the case of HUD’s Donovan, a department spokesman defended the trip. “It’s a fairly regular thing he’s been doing as part of his official business,” said spokesman Neill Coleman. Also present at the housing complex event, he said, were the mayor of Orlando and Rep. Corrine Brown, a less-vulnerable Democrat from a neighboring district.

Energy Secretary Chu’s visit to Ohio was strictly “official business,” said Stephanie Mueller, a department spokeswoman. While in the state, Chu met with business leaders and students from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College to discuss “building a clean energy workforce in Ohio,” she said. And the food plant tour was “an example of how Recovery Act investments are creating jobs while making a down payment on a clean energy future,” the spokeswoman added.

Education Secretary Duncan’s visit to rural North Dakota was simply part of his continuing “listening and learning tour for education reform,” said spokesman Justin Hamilton. The tour has taken Duncan to nearly all 50 states, and he has appeared with lawmakers from both parties, including Republicans Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the spokesman added.

The three spokesmen for HUD, the Energy Department, and the Education Department declined to estimate, for the record, the costs of the trips to taxpayers.

Spokesmen with the EPA and Interior Department did not respond to Center requests for comment.

Using White House control of federal departments and agencies to aid candidates is a time-honored tradition.

“It’s just part of the game,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a non-profit watchdog group. “It’s not shocking that in an election, the administration in charge sends its top people in to try and make a member look better.”

Three years ago, Congressional Democrats and government watchdogs were outraged to discover that the Bush administration’s drug czar, John Walters, and his deputies had traveled around the country to attend 20 events with vulnerable Republicans in the lead-up to the November 2006 election. The trips, paid for by taxpayer funds and often coupled with announcements of federal grants, led to a Congressional investigation, admonishment, and reduction of the travel budget for the drug czar’s office.

Email records revealed in 2007 that Republican strategist Karl Rove and Bush administration political figures had encouraged high-ranking appointees to coordinate appearances and grant announcements in ways that benefited Republican incumbents. In one notable instance, a senior official travelled to a Connecticut swing district to announce “a single $23 government weather alert radio” for a local elementary school, according to The Washington Post.

Tom Fitton, president of the conservative, non-profit watchdog group Judicial Watch, agrees that taxpayer-paid funded travel is par for the course. Still, he finds it inappropriate.

Worse, Fitton said, “is what surrounds the travel — the announcement of grants and things. One wonders if they’d be announced at all if not for the election.” However, he conceded that pre-election trips by high-ranking government officials is unlikely to end any time soon.

“It’s an abuse of tax dollars that virtually every administration engages in at election time,” Fitton said.

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