What Would You Drive, if the Taxpayers Paid?
Representative Anthony D. Weiner, Democrat of Brooklyn and Queens, drives a 2008 Chevrolet Impala, leased for $219 a month. Representative Michael R. McNulty, a Democrat from the Albany area, gets around in a 2007 Mercury Mariner hybrid, a sport utility vehicle, for $816 a month.
“It gets a little better than 25 miles a gallon,” Mr. McNulty said.
Charles B. Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is not so caught up in the question of gas mileage. He leases a 2004 Cadillac DeVille for $777.54 a month. The car is 17 feet long with a 300-horsepower engine and seats five comfortably.
“It’s one of the bigger Cadillacs,” Mr. Rangel, of Harlem, said cheerfully this week. “I’ve got a desk in it. It’s like an airplane.”
Modest or more luxurious, the cars are all paid for by taxpayers. The use of a car — gas included — is one of the benefits of being a member of the House of Representatives.
There are few restrictions on what kind of car the members can choose, and there is no limit on how much they can spend. But the benefit can be politically sensitive, given the growing concerns about automobile emissions and an economy that has left many people struggling to pay for the rapidly rising cost of gas, which was averaging $3.63 a gallon nationwide earlier this week.
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. The perk itself may draw heightened attention in the coming weeks as members of Congress consider proposals to address gas prices, including one to suspend temporarily the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon.
Congressional records show that about 125 members of the House make use of the benefit, which has been in place since at least the 1980s and is part of the allowance provided for their office operations. They include Representatives Charlie Melancon of Louisiana (2007 Chevy Tahoe), Bobby L. Rush of Illinois (2007 Lincoln Navigator) and Alcee L. Hastings of Florida (2006 Infiniti M45).
The Senate does not permit its members to lease cars with public money.
Of the 42 representatives from New York and New Jersey, at least a dozen lease cars, and their choices run the gamut. Some choose not to lease a car, in an effort to avoid yet one more headache.
“There are so many ethical issues people can raise,” said Representative Peter T. King, a Long Island Republican, who stopped leasing a car through his office in 2004. “I felt it just wasn’t worth the trouble or the aggravation. With the issues that people can raise against you, I just figured it didn’t make sense.”
Members have found themselves under fire in their districts for what their constituents may regard as extravagant tastes or for leasing foreign cars. Before the 2006 election, one Ithaca resident denounced Representative Maurice D. Hinchey’s lease of a BMW 530i to The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, saying that Mr. Hinchey, a Democrat, “sticks it to” the taxpayers and American workers. (Mr. Hinchey also leases a 2007 Nissan Altima for $200 a month for his chief of staff.)
In 2007, the House adopted a rule requiring members to choose cars from a list of low-emissions vehicles approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Asked about their cars over the past week, many New York representatives offered environmental rationales, some more persuasive than others.
Representative Edolphus Towns, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he had begun to take fuel economy into consideration and recently traded in his 2005 Lincoln Town Car (at $845 a month) for a 2008 Lincoln MKX, called a crossover utility vehicle, (at $715 a month).
“I no longer have the big car because of the gas situation,” Mr. Towns said.
It turns out, however, that the Town Car and the MKX get the same gas mileage: about 16 m.p.g. in the city and 23 on the highway, according to the Department of Energy. House leaders were concerned enough about the issue that they sent a memo to members suggesting that they consider leasing hybrids, according to one lawmaker who leases. Still, among the New York and New Jersey delegation, only one member — Mr. McNulty — uses a hybrid, according to the best available information.
“I think more members are going to be going to the hybrids,” said Mr. McNulty.
Mr. McNulty would not offer an opinion of members who lease more luxurious cars. “I’m not going to judge another member’s decision,” he said. “Mine was utility.”
Other members stand out for their more downscale choices.
Representative Jim Saxton, a Republican of New Jersey, leases a 2004 Chevy TrailBlazer at what he views as a reasonable $310 a month.
“Congressman Saxton feels an elected public official should choose a car that doesn’t cost taxpayers an extravagant amount,” said Jeff Sagnip, his spokesman.
Of course, there are concerns beyond cost, other members say.
“I can tell you Lexus has one of the best services and is one of the most reliable cars I know,” said Representative Gregory W. Meeks, a Queens Democrat, who leases a 2007 Lexus LS 460 at $998 a month. Mr. Meeks, interviewed a few feet from the House floor last week, seemed reluctant to go into detail, saying he was worried that a story about members’ cars could be “distorted” or negative.
“These are never lighthearted stories,” he said. His spokeswoman declined to discuss details of his leasing agreement.
Mr. Towns said leasing makes sense when you put as many miles on a car as he does traveling his Brooklyn district. He typically turns in the cars every few years. “After two years of traveling in the district, that’s a lot of wear and tear,” he said.
For Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a Buffalo-area Democrat, safety was a worry, given her sprawling district. Ms. Slaughter used to drive her personal car to get around, she said. Then, in 2002, her political rivals in the Legislature in Albany redrew her district, in what she viewed as a deliberate effort to force her from office.
The new map, she said, resulted in a vast swath of western New York that is treacherous to travel in winter. She turned to a 2007 Buick Lucerne, which she leases for $808.29 a month.
“For the longest time, I didn’t do it at all,” she said of leasing. But the Lucerne, she said, had good traction and, perhaps more important, came equipped with a satellite tracking system. “I figured if I got stuck in a snow bank people could find me,” she said. “If I’m in an accident, they might be able to find me and not have to wait until the thaw.”
Mr. Rangel said he frequently offers rides to constituents so they can discuss their concerns in the luxurious confines of his DeVille.
“I want them to feel that they are somebody and their congressman is somebody,” Mr. Rangel explained. “And when they say, ‘This is nice,’ it feels good.”