Addicted To Perks

Drugs and alcohol are for losers: the substance-abuse problem of choice is perks. John Sununu merely typifies this addiction. His "perkoholism" may not have been chronicled yet by The New England Journal of Medicine, but it is epidemic among American elites in both government and business. The disease's symptoms include a superficial ego high, increased appetites for pleasure and a disturbing forgetfulness about what's really important in life. The mind-bending "trips" to distant locales may be real, but they are often as irrational as anything hallucinogenic. This dysfunctional behavior is abetted by "enablers" (also known as the entourage). As usual, abusers go through years of denial during which they ease their consciences with a series of rationalizations for their conduct.

This combination of self-pity and arrogance, which afflicts most people from time to time, proves especially toxic in the minds of perk-barrel politicians. It can also induce ethical nearsightedness. Don't officeholders who take favors ever pause to think about the motives of their benefactors? The motives of business leaders who provide basketball tickets to basketball fans (e.g. Mobil lobbyist Barney Skladany to Rep. Bob Mrazek) or 2,600 steaks to Texas carnivores (Chevron Corp. to Gov. Ann Richards and her political buddies) are obvious. They get access--a chance to pitch their message or, more often, the feeling of relaxed friendship that can provide access later on, when they need it. Even with the banning of honoraria for speeches in the U.S. House, the rules still permit members to turn speeches into four-day vacations, courtesy of lobbyists who may have bills before their committees. In Barbados last Easter, a lobbyist paid for congressmen to Jet Ski.

Because public pay is so uniform, perks are used within government to differentiate status. No one at the White House can be taken seriously without mess privileges and a West Executive Avenue parking spot. Even at small agencies and many local commissions, a car and driver are provided. (The number of chauffeur-driven cars has more than doubled in the federal executive branch in the last decade.) The natural extension of this mentality is huge staff growth. Until the voters intervened, the staff and perks of the California Assembly grew at four times the rate of the state's population; still untouched in the New York City budget (where funds for libraries and health have been slashed) are thousands of personal staffers for city officials.

Besides making the boss feel important, what do all of these extra aides do? Old-fashioned coatholding is the least of it. Plenty of politicians ask their aides to walk their dogs or pick up laundry. In the private sector, where public exposure is rarely an issue, no task is beneath delegating. Pete Peterson, a high-flying investment banker, was once spotted asking an aide to push an elevator button for him.

This was the excuse offered by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's press secretary, who told The Washington Post that from 1987 to 1991 his boss used corporate or charter planes for every trip back home. The casual-sounding formulation often used by members of Congress is that they simply "hitch a ride" on a corporate jet, as if they were simply going in the same direction at the same time. But is it possible that, say, all 25 trips on corporate planes (owned by Archer-Daniels-Midland and U.S. Tobacco, among others) by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt in the past year were the product of such a coincidence in travel plans?

More often, like Sununu, members of Congress solicit the jet. (When lawmakers want to travel abroad, they go on one of the 22 military planes the Air Force uses to keep them happy.) In the executive branch, hundreds of trips have been solicited from corporations whose business is affected by federal regulation, with reimbursement (the equivalent of a first-class ticket) covering only a fraction of the actual chartering cost. Among the most frequent users of corporate jets are Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, though Kemp's department said last month that it will bar the practice.

At a certain point, corporate-sponsored travel reaches something close to a perk shakedown. "I'm being hustled all the time," says a lobbyist who represents a Caribbean island government. For example, he says that the chairman of a Senate committee asked him to arrange an "excuse" to transform a family vacation in the Virgin Islands into a business trip. "I literally handed him the tickets to a vacation he had planned, and it was a total fraud."

Loosely interpreted, it may be, but when businesses offer travel and other gifts they violate the spirit of laws passed after Watergate to regulate corporate contributions. A related excuse--"We've disclosed everything"--often falls short. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski enjoyed the use of a private railroad car en route to the Kentucky Derby this year. Neither the Burlington Northern Railroad nor Rostenkowski's office would elaborate, and the trip will likely be "disclosed" on an obscure government form as a simple railroad ticket.

In the business world, expenses are tax-deductible, which means that the taxpayers subsidize corporate perks, too. That means the public has helped pay for International Paper's 60,000-acre corporate retreat (complete with landing strip) in the Adirondacks, not to mention Shearson Lehman's $25 million ski lodge in Beaver Creek, Colo. According to a survey by the Chicago-based Hewitt Associates, 59 percent of Fortune 500 companies have corporate jets. (Under Ross Johnson, RJR Nabisco had 10, including one used by the CEO's dog.) The destinations of these flights are often multimillion-dollar homes that companies continue to build or buy for executives, many of whom (like Chrysler's Lee Iacocca) are running companies that are awash in red ink.

"It's pretty simple," concludes billionaire H. Ross Perot. "It's pillage and plunder." Taxpayers, he says, feel as helpless as shareholders: "They feel the country doesn't belong to them anymore." Sounds like another national scourge, this one worthy of its own righteous indignation: just say no to taxpayer-subsidized Gulfstream IV trips to Acapulco.

The richer you are, the less you have to spend. How the perk game works:

Corporate jets fly executives and politicians to easy-to-reach destinations.

We're too busy to wait for the 6 o'clock shuttle.

With a good accountant, anything's legit, even skiing, fishing, scuba diving.

Business was discussed underwater.

Even small-fry officials on local commissions have entourages, chauffeurs.

We have to convince everyone we aren't small fry.