The GOP-led House Armed Services Committee narrowly defeated a bid by Democrats late Wednesday to compel the Air Force to detail how much has been spent on trips that President Donald Trump has made to his Florida estate and other properties he owns.
Republicans denounced the measure as “gotcha politics” and an attempt to litigate the 2016 election. But Democrats fired back, saying Trump has invited the scrutiny by refusing to divest himself from his business empire or release his taxes.
“This is different,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., “This is unprecedented.”
Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., authored the measure as an amendment to the annual defense policy bill being considered late Wednesday by the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee. Committee members voted 31-31 on the measure, but ties count as defeats. The amendment would have required the Air Force to regularly submit presidential travel expense reports to Congress. Each report would include “costs incurred” for travel to a property owned or operated by Trump or his immediate family, according to the amendment.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the committee had no business asking for the travel costs.
“This is the House Armed Services Committee,” he said. “We don't oversee the federal bureau of ethics.”
Conaway said the Defense Department can't audit its books and records as it is. Adding another requirement for detailed cost information would make the problem even worse.
“This will add one more straw to that camel,” Conaway said.
As president, Trump flies on Air Force One. He is accompanied by staff members and military aides. Going to his properties incurs additional security expenses and support equipment, unlike a trip to Camp David, a government-owned retreat in Maryland that is protected year-round as a military installation.
Trump visited Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort, on seven weekends this winter, embracing the estate as the “winter White House” and using it to host the leaders of Japan and China. He has also flown to New York City, home to Trump Tower. More recently he has favored his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he has a home.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who was nominated to the post by Trump, told O'Halleran in a letter this month that Trump's travel costs are “consistent” with former President Barack Obama's.
“The Air Force total cost for movement of the president” between Jan. 20, when Trump was inaugurated, and May 18 was $15.8 million, or just under $4 million per 30 days, according to Wilson's June 12 letter.
But backers of O'Halleran's amendment said Wilson's response failed to provide a breakdown of costs, which is what the lawmakers want. She said they are looking for “ongoing, regular transparency” of the financial impact to the Air Force's budget that may be caused by the frequency of travel by the president and his family.
In the hours-long work on the bill, the committee approved an amendment that declares climate change “a direct threat to national security.” The measure, crafted by Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, won GOP backing because it only requires the Pentagon to deliver a report to Congress that assesses the impact of global warming on the U.S. military.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee chairman, wanted a bill that would provide the Pentagon with $705 billion for 2018, with $640 billion for core Pentagon operations. The rest would be used for ongoing warfighting missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
But he agreed to accept roughly $9 billion less after discussions with House leaders and the Budget and Appropriations committees. Thornberry, who called the deal a compromise, said he secured assurances from his GOP colleagues that future defense budgets would grow sufficiently to restock the U.S. arsenal, add more troops, improve military training and more.
But Smith, the committee's top Democrat, said the bigger budget numbers could be illusory unless Republicans and Democrats agree to roll back a 2011 law that set strict limits on federal spending. That's a tall order, said Smith, who noted that lifting the so-called budget caps would take 60 votes in the Senate.
“Right now, we're just hoping,” Smith said. “We're doing the $696 billion and we're hoping that between now and Oct. 1 some path that at the moment is completely blocked and completely unforeseen is going to emerge.”
The Senate committee's blueprint seeks to reverse what the panel described as a “crisis” in modernizing the armed forces with advanced weapons and support equipment. The panel called the defense budget that Trump sent to Congress last month a “step in the right direction,” but “insufficient to undo the damage of the last six years.” Trump made rebuilding the military services a signature promise during the presidential campaign.
The committee authorized $10.6 billion for 94 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, which is two dozen more than Trump requested. The troops would get a 2.1 percent pay raise under the Senate plan, which is less than the House Armed Services Committee approved. The Senate bill would add 5,000 active-duty troops to the Army, while the House seeks an increase of 10,000 soldiers. Those and other differences will have to be resolved.