Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has taken at least 24 flights on private charter planes at taxpayers' expense since early May, according to people with knowledge of his travel plans and a review of HHS documents.The frequency of the trips underscores how private travel has become the norm -- rather than the exception -- for the Georgia Republican during his tenure atop the federal health agency, which began in February. The cost of the trips identified by POLITICO exceeds $300,000, according to a review of federal contracts and similar trip itineraries.
When Politico first broke this story earlier in the week, there was some question about who was picking up the tab for Price's charter flights. That question has now been answered: we're paying for it.
The far-right cabinet's secretary spokesperson told the New York Times the other day that Price's chartered flights were necessary to accommodate his "incredibly demanding schedule," but Politico's reporting suggests there were cheaper commercial flights available for many of these trips.
The new defense, offered yesterday pointed to Price's role in the federal response to the recent hurricanes, which might make more sense if most of his private-jet travel hadn't occurred long before the storms reached the U.S.
Indeed, the closer one looks at the details, the worse they appear. Politico's article added, "In June, Price spoke at a physicians association conference in San Diego, where he vowed to wring out wasteful spending in the government's health care programs. Getting 'value' for spending 'is incredibly important,' he said. Price took a private plane to get to the meeting, which was one stop on a five-state sprint of charter travel that cost $50,420."
Let's get a few things straight:
First, in a normal administration, Price's ouster would be a foregone conclusion.
Second, the broader context adds insult to injury: the far-right cabinet secretary who says we can't afford to help Medicaid beneficiaries receive medical care is the same cabinet secretary who's using taxpayer money to charter private jets for himself. It's effectively a Dickensian nightmare.
Third, I've been keeping an eye on Price's career for years, and if he were still in Congress, this is exactly the kind of controversy about which he'd be apoplectic. Indeed, exactly eight years ago this month, the Georgia Republican appeared on CNBC to rail against -- you guessed it -- government use of private jets.
At this point, congressional hearings would ordinarily be a no-brainer, but since Republicans aren't comfortable with overseeing the Trump administration, Democrats are pushing for the HHS inspector general to scrutinize Pence's trips. Under the circumstances, I'm hard pressed to imagine how the IG's office could refuse.
Postscript: It turns out Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also flies on private jets, but she's independently wealthy and apparently doesn't charge taxpayers for her luxurious preferences.