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Ethics Bill Could Limit Candidates’ Jet Travel

Despite Democratic leadership pledges to shut out election-related provisions from lobbying reform legislation, Senate changes to a bill restricting how lobbyists and lawmakers interact also will likely eat away at the comfort level for federal candidates on the campaign trail.

“Candidates and their offices are going to be flying commercial a lot more or they’re going to be paying charter fares,” said Marc Elias, a lawyer for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “The days of using corporate jets are behind us.”

As part of its comprehensive ethics rewrite, the Senate adopted an amendment sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) requiring Senate, House and presidential candidates to reimburse corporate jet owners the full charter rate for renting their airplanes, which Members often use for campaigning and fundraising.

Although a rules change in Reid’s amendment applies only to current Senators, the Senate bill also includes statutory changes that would apply to all federal candidates. Once statutory fixes are addressed in the House and the issue goes to conference, according to one Democratic staffer, corporate-jet-travel discounts should become a thing of the past.

“I’m confident the concept will survive,” said one Democratic aide. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

For now, jet travel restrictions apply only to Members in the House, which earlier this month banned outright the use of corporate jets by its Members.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) told Roll Call last week the House is not expected to pass lobbying legislation until the spring. After that, DeMint said, the conference process “could take a while.”

If and when the restrictions as written by the Senate become law, they would require the Federal Election Commission to amend federal campaign finance law, according to Larry Norton, the agency’s general counsel.

Under current law, federal candidates usually are required to pay corporate jet owners for a first-class ticket. Once the new rules are implemented, federal candidates and their staffs could see that rate increase by a factor of 10 or more — a fact that could quickly devastate candidates’ resources, especially in presidential contests.

“You are going to see a lot more Members in the ‘Admirals Clubs,’” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist. “If I were United or American, I’d be breaking ground in Des Moines today.”

While some candidates may balk at long lines and crowded terminals, in many cases flying commercial routes simply are not practical for candidates, regardless of whether they’re traveling coach or first class. For presidential candidates, the need to crisscross the country for fundraising and campaign events is especially acute.

In early 2003, then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who had just begun his presidential bid, paid the law firm Baron and Budd more than $30,000 for three months of air travel, presumably on the firm’s corporate jet, an often-cited aircraft of choice for Member travel.

Because presidential campaigning is so expensive, many campaigns might simply choose to lease their own aircraft outright, or more likely, purchase a fractional lease. Still, the costs could be astronomical.

According to Gerry Jackson, a charter aircraft consultant in Minneapolis, a presidential campaign likely would rent a Boeing 767 at a cost of about $1.8 million per month. Smaller airplanes such as DC-9s rent for about $300,000 per month.

Although Elias expects larger campaigns like those at the presidential level to lease aircraft — and sooner rather than later in this accelerated election season — he and others say smaller presidential and Senate campaigns likely will choose to rent a set number of flight hours aboard a private jet from companies such as NetJets or FlexJets.

“There likely will be a major increase in the use of commercial charter planes, particularly time-share arrangements,” said Michael Toner, a Republican-nominated FEC commissioner. “There will no longer be the comparable cost advantages for flying on private jets.”

“Commercial jets will likely become the vehicle of choice for federal candidates,” he added.

But in some instances —take Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) — an airline’s route or renting an expensive charter plane can be impractical logistically and financially. According to his spokesman Dan Whiting, Craig travels his huge state primarily by car or commercial aircraft, but two or three times a year travels in a private plane, usually around elections.

“There are places in Idaho where you just can’t go to easily,” Whiting said. “Bottom line: its going to become more expensive.”

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