MATTHEW GAGNON

You’ve come a long way, Mike

Posted May 24, 2012, at 3:21 p.m.

What could you buy for $800 a month?

Residents of Maine’s second congressional district could buy a lot. That could pay the rent for an average sized apartment, groceries, gas and dinner out once a week. It could buy a few new suits or day care for a couple kids.

If you own a small business, it could pay for the health insurance cost for a family plan for one of your employees. You could buy — every month — a decent laptop, or a top-of-the-line iPad. You could even buy a few dozen shares of Facebook. $800 is quite a lot.

Well, if you are Congressman Mike Michaud, it could get you a new, very expensive vehicle. A vehicle provided by the taxpayers of the United States.

The House of Representatives, which Michaud has been a part of since 2003, allows its members to lease vehicles for use in their district, at taxpayer expense. Of the 435 sitting representatives, only 82 are politically tone deaf enough to take advantage of this particular perquisite.

Rolling around your district in a swank new taxpayer funded vehicle while your constituents are struggling isn’t exactly the smartest image to project for a politician. That — along with being a magnificent waste of money — is why the Senate actually does not allow the practice.

Oh, the logic sounds great. It allows members to drive around their district easily to meet with the people. Those who make use of it say it saves money from mileage reimbursements (a dubious claim).

Of course, essentially all lavish benefits congress gives itself can be tied back to some very questionable rationalizations, drawn up by the congressional representatives themselves. Nobody seems to suggest that maybe the taxpayers shouldn’t be the ones on the hook for all of that in the first place.

For Michaud, the spoils of life in Washington give him a 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV, for a monthly charge to the taxpayers of $795. There was a time when modest Mike Michaud was famous for driving a forklift, rather than a posh taxpayer funded hybrid SUV, but it seems those days are over.

Naturally, there is more to the story. Michaud’s vehicle is leased from Lee Leasing in Auburn, part of the Lee Auto Malls group of dealerships in Maine. The Lee family has been a major contributor to Michaud’s congressional campaigns for a decade. Adam Lee, Catherine Lee and Shep Lee have collectively contributed roughly $10,000 to Michaud over the years.

The dots here are not hard to connect. Michaud saw an opportunity to obtain a vehicle for his own use funded by the taxpayers, and also saw a chance to pay back a major campaign contributor with that tax money.

I have a problem with this entire program, obviously. Senators, who have much more area — entire states — to travel, are wise enough not to do this. Still, there are those who take advantage of the program who at least attempt to be judicious with the tax dollars they spend.

Democrat Xavier Becerra of California spends only $271.80 a month on his car, and Republican John Sullivan of Oklahoma spends $258.30, both of which are lower than my wife’s payment for her microscopic sized Chevy Cruze.

Michaud could at least try to pretend, and follow the example of Becerra and Sullivan. Personally, I’d prefer if he took a cue from Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who drives around the state in a beat-up pickup with more than 200,000 miles on it.

This program simply shouldn’t exist, and if it must than it should be considered unethical to lease a vehicle from a campaign contributor.

Michaud’s 2012 salary is $174,000, which I think we can all agree should be more than enough to own a car and drive it around the district on his own, without needing any reimbursement. It shouldn’t be necessary to give additional benefits when the people of the United States are already being so generous.

Just because something technically is allowed within the rules does not mean that it is ethical, or that it should be done. Mike Michaud should follow the example of 353 of his colleagues, and forego the car.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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