Lawmakers' vehicle leases cost $1M in '05
Monthly leases ranged from less than $215 to $1,248.31.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WASHINGTON -- Taxpayers paid more than $1 million last year for members of Congress to lease vehicles, including dozens of gas-guzzling SUVs and expensive luxury cars.
Some members of Congress use their office budgets to lease Lexuses, Lincolns, Cadillacs, an Infiniti, even a BMW 530i, which one auto critic called "one of the world's best sport luxury sedans." The lease prices of some cars topped $1,000 a month.
A few leased two cars on the taxpayers' dime; two lawmakers leased three.
Leasing cars is a little-known perk used by 136 members of the 435-member House of Representatives in 2005. The Senate doesn't allow its members to lease cars with their office budgets. Last year, the House leases cost at least $1.05 million. Taxpayers also paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars more in gas and insurance.
Defenders of the system say that leasing cars can be cheaper than reimbursing lawmakers for driving their own cars through districts that often sprawl over thousands of miles. If members and staff use their own cars on official business, the House reimburses them a maximum of 44.5 cents per mile.
Critics agree that the practice can be a good deal for taxpayers when members lease efficient, inexpensive cars.
For example, Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., leased a Honda Accord that cost less than $215 a month -- and got good mileage to boot.
"She wanted something responsible with the taxpayers' dollars," said Andy Polk, Myrick's spokesman. "It's appropriate, and it gets the job done."
But too often, critics say, members of Congress choose luxury. They say that's especially troubling when lawmakers are dealing with soaring budget deficits by cutting dozens of popular federal programs, such as student loans.
"If they're telling everybody to tighten their belts and they're leasing these luxury cars, it just doesn't fly in Peoria," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Indeed, members of Congress could lease less expensive -- and less flashy -- cars through the General Services Administration, the federal government's purchasing agency, which negotiates bulk lease prices for the federal government. SUVs can be leased through the GSA for as little as $300 a month, according to the GSA Web site. Four-door, midsize sedans cost $258 a month.
The most expensive vehicle leased was a Ford Expedition for Rep. Michael Ross, D-Ark., for $1,248.31 a month. The cheapest: a Chevrolet Tahoe leased by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, for $210.65 a month.
Many members report only the cost of a lease and not the make or model of the vehicle. The most popular models identified were SUVs: Nineteen members of Congress reported leasing the Chevrolet Tahoe or its twin, the GMC Yukon. They get about 15 miles per gallon in the city.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., whose district covers 5,500 oft-remote miles in southwestern Missouri, leases a Tahoe for $903.80 a month.
"Because his district is rather spread out and he frequently takes a lot of staff with him, this is the vehicle he's used for some time," spokeswoman Burson Taylor said.
Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., tools around his 16-square-mile Manhattan district in a Cadillac DeVille that costs nearly $1,000 a month. In nearby Queens, Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks chose a Lexus for $1,062.85 a month.
Neither Rangel's nor Meeks' office returned calls.
Total for three vehicles
Ross, whose Arkansas district covers nearly 21,000 square miles, spent the most taxpayer money on cars in 2005: a total of $36,343.84 for an Expedition, a Ford 500 and a Ford Crown Victoria.
The median annual income of Ross' constituents is about $30,000, according to the U.S. Census.
Ross' leases are expensive because they're short term and high mileage, said Rachel Kleinman, his spokeswoman -- although so are most other lawmakers' leases. She said she didn't know whether Ross had shopped around for a better deal.
"He's done the math forward and backward, and this is what's most cost-effective for us," Kleinman said.
Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., also leased three cars a month, although at considerably better deals: a Chevrolet Trailblazer, a Pontiac Grand Prix and a Pontiac Bonneville. Total cost: about $13,000 for the year -- less than the cost of Ross' Expedition alone.
One of the cars is used as a "mobile office" and is kept on the road almost nonstop in the 6,500-square-mile district, McIntyre said.
McIntyre said he has a 200-mile round trip to the airport from home every week when he flies to Washington, plus three far-flung district offices.
"They're American-made cars," McIntyre said. "They handle well, they're safe and reliable."
The practice knows no party lines: Seventy-four Republicans leased vehicles last year, as did 65 Democrats.
Judging by the prices, some congressmen are more careful stewards of public money than others.
At least six members leased Ford Expeditions, at prices ranging from $586.64 to Ross' high of $1,248.31. The average cost for the six reported 2005 Expeditions: $785.41.
Congress is considering a wide range of reform proposals as it tries to recover from ethics scandals involving fund raising, lobbyists and earmarks.