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Lawmakers Driving on Taxpayers’ Dime

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) didn’t succeed Thursday in his effort to amend the cash for clunkers program to disqualify those drivers earning more than $50,000 a year. (In fact, he ended up pulling his own amendment after discovering a drafting error that the Michigan delegation wouldn’t let him fix.)

Is that fair to someone of my status who makes — let’s face it, I make $172,000 a year. Is it fair that I should get $4,500 to go out and buy a new car? I just don’t think that is fair. I don’t think it is right. But I think it would be right for someone making less than $50,000 a year because they are the ones who need the help.

His message was clear: Congressional lawmakers earn enough already, and therefore don’t need the taxpayers subsidizing their vehicles. Unmentioned was the fact that, at least in the House, the taxpayers already pay for lawmakers’ vehicles — and at costs well above $4,500.

The New York Times wrote the regional piece last year, revealing that 13 House lawmakers in New York and New Jersey take advantage of a chamber rule allowing them to bill taxpayers for leased vehicles as part of their office costs.

“The use of a car — gas included — is one of the benefits of being a member of the House of Representatives,” the Times noted dryly, adding that Senate rules don’t allow upper-chamber lawmakers the same benefits. “There are few restrictions on what kind of car the members can choose, and there is no limit on how much they can spend. … Not only does the federal government pick up the cost of the lease and the gas, but also general maintenance, insurance, registration fees and excess mileage charges.”

Topping the expense list (at least as of May 2008) was Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who was billing taxpayers $998 a month for his Lexus LS 460. So on top of the roughly $170,000 in salary Meeks was pulling in, he also got almost $12,000 to drive a luxury sedan.

Some lawmakers defended the perk, saying that their large districts require a lot of travel to meet with constituents. But Meeks, who represents a section of Queens, declined to comment for the Times story. “These are never lighthearted stories,” he said.

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