Newsmax, a conservative newsmagazine and website, recently sent an e-mail pitch to potential subscribers that spotlighted a few examples of supposedly wasteful federal spending. We saw it when one of our readers passed it along.
"Dear Newsmax Reader" the e-mail read. "The average American works three months a year, WITHOUT PAY, for the federal government. If you are in a higher tax bracket, you could be spending up to half your life working for Uncle Sam. And how is your money being spent?"
The example that most piqued our interest was this one: "The refusal of many federal employees to fly coach costs taxpayers $146 million annually."
We decided to check to see if the claim was correct.
An Internet search first directed us to a column by Brian Riedl, a fiscal policy specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The column was posted on the website of the Orange County Register on Nov. 25, 2009. Further research revealed that the data came from a September 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO concluded that at least $146 million was spent on "improper first- and business-class travel government-wide" between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006. It arrived at this number by obtaining billing information from government travel charge-card databases operated by Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase and U.S. Bank. The audit focused on executive branch agencies and wholly owned government corporations and excluded travel by the judicial and legislative branches.
The rules defining justified premium air travel are complicated, but generally speaking, agencies can provide business class travel in circumstances such as when an individual has a physical disability that is certified by a medical professional or when a flight is to or from a destination outside the continental United States, exceeds 14 hours and is taken without a rest stop en route or at destination.
GAO researchers selected what they described as a statistically valid sample of 96 premium-class flight purchases with a price tag of $391,000. These purchases received close scrutiny.
"For each sample transaction, we requested that the entities provide the travel authorization, travel voucher, travel itinerary, and other related supporting documentations demonstrating justification for premium travel arrangements," the report said. "Based on the information provided, we assessed whether premium class travel was properly authorized and whether the premium class travel was justified in accordance with (federal) or other applicable travel regulations. If, after repeated requests, the entities did not provide us with the supporting documentation, we concluded that the premium class travel was improper."
All told, about two-thirds of the trips were either "not properly authorized, not properly justified, or both," the GAO found. This percentage was then projected onto the universe of federal premium travel billings, which was $230 million over the time period studied. Adjusting slightly downward as a hedge against statistical error, GAO concluded that $146 million of the $230 million spent on premium flights was unjustified.
The GAO noted that the differences between first class, business class and coach tickets can be wide. Citing data from the General Services Administration, a federal agency, the GAO noted that government fare for business-class travel "is typically more than 5 times the price of coach class travel for comparable routes, with some tickets costing more than 10 times as much. First-class travel can be even more costly. For example, we found that a round-trip first-class ticket from Washington, D.C., to London cost over $12,000 compared to a business class ticket that would have cost about $6,000, or a coach class ticket that would have cost less than $800."
If you trust GAO's sampling and overall methodology -- and we have no reason to doubt it -- then Newsmax's presentation of the data seems pretty accurate. We only had two quibbles:
• The GAO's methodology doesn't delve into the question of the employee's motives when seeking a premium-class flight, so we think '"refusal" is too strong a word for Newsmax to use when describring how the federal employees reacted to the idea of flying coach.
• GAO noted that the $230 million spent on premium-class flights accounted for less than 1 percent of the cost of all federal government flights during the period. So the overcharges themselves amounted to less than 1 percent of the total spent on federal airline travel.
When we asked Riedl about this, he said that "the point is that taxpayers paid for $146 million in largely unnecessary spending. Whether that accounts for 1 percent, 10 percent, or 50 percent of the total federal travel budget is irrelevant to that point."
We do think that knowing the full context might give readers a different impression, and we believe the word "refusal" oversteps. But in general, the $146 million number was determined by what appears to be a credible methodology, and by a group -- the GAO -- without a partisan axe to grind. On balance, we rate the statement Mostly True.