Passenger Confronts Member of Congress Flying First Class During the Shutdown

On Tuesday Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) was confronted by a passenger on a Chicago – DC flight over his flying in first class during the government shutdown. (HT: Tommy L)

“Congressman, do you think it’s appropriate to fly first class while 57 TSA agents aren’t being paid?” the person says to Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), in an apparent reference to the Transportation Security Administration’s 57,000 employees, who are being required to work without pay.

Davis remained silent, prompting the person to say, “Taking that as a yes.”

The government doesn’t buy first class tickets for Members of Congress to travel between their home and DC. However they’re generally frequent flyers, earning elite status on their preferred airline, so upgrades aren’t uncommon. Although I regularly see Members of Congress walking to the back of American Airlines flying DC – Dallas on Thursday afternoons.

  • They often do receive special services on the ground.

  • They aren’t generally upgraded ahead of other passengers, but are permitted to accept upgrades offered on the same terms as other similarly-situated passengers

The issue here is that it may look unseemly for a member of Congress to appear to be ‘living well’ (how much of the country sees domestic first class) during the government shutdown. Indeed it’s popular to suggest that Members of Congress shouldn’t be paid while the government is shut down.

I disagree. That would give extra leverage to the President in negotiations. You don’t want a system where the President holds the power over whether or not Congress gets paid, individual members might bend towards the will of the President because they need to make rent. Yes that’s the same position other government workers are in, but those workers aren’t making decisions of policy and budget for the country. For balance of powers reasons it’s important not to give this leverage to the President in my view, regardless of party in control.

However just because Members of Congress aren’t getting paid first class travel or free upgrades other frequent flyers don’t get doesn’t mean they aren’t afforded special privileges. They are. Airlines want things from Congress, and treat them better than the rest of us because of it.

It wasn’t just corrupt United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek doing it — years ago US Airways had special flights for a member of Congress and gave a Senator flight discounts.

Ted Kennedy objected when US Airways was going to lay off special services staff at National airport who took care of him, his office just said he was saving jobs. Delta comps elite status to politicians across Georgia. Airlines have special desks to serve congressional travel needs, allowing members to reserve seats on multiple flights and only pay for what they fly. And Members of Congress and Supreme Court Justices have long had their own free parking at National Airport.

Airlines want legislation to permit airfares to be advertised without including taxes and fees. They want to shut down competition and low prices from Middle East airlines. They want to keep limits on airport facilities charges.

Delta wants the perimeter rule at LaGuardia lifted. United wanted the PATH train extended to Newark. They want to keep National airport’s perimeter rule, because long flights there would compete against flights from their Dulles hub.

Governments influence the fortunes of the airlines, and airlines attempt to gain favors from governments. It should come as no surprise that airlines have the ear of regulators, and regulations favor incumbent airlines. Model that whenever you think of a regulation you’d like to see passed governing the industry, and ask yourself the likelihood that it will be written and enforced in a way that benefits ‘people in general’ or ‘the airlines’ you want to regulate.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I take your point about leverage. I’d solve it by not paying the president, and curtailing executive spending, as well.

  2. Honestly, any congress person who flies first at any time is probably making a public relations mistake. If they were wiser, they’d give their first class seat to an elderly person, someone in uniform, etc. They’d still use the priority boarding, and earn the miles — just swap the seat at time of boarding. For the relatively small in-flight advantages that domestic first class represent it doesn’t seem worth it to me (overnight, overseas travel is a different matter).

    The argument about paying congress people during a shutdown does make sense, but I’m guessing it pretty much comes down to whether one wants the President to have more or less leverage in any individual instance.

  3. @grichard: I think not paying the President doesn’t solve the leverage issue since (1) that’s one person, usually quite wealthy and (2) even if the President were not wealthy they have almost all their expenses paid (in ways that any reasonable person would probably consider essential) — unlike Congress people who are relatively poorly paid and are generally maintaining two homes.

  4. @LarryInNYC – I guess I just don’t want members of Congress to acquiesce to the President because they need cash as opposed to decisions being based on policy reasons as such, but it’s not as though the current approach gets us great governance so I’m open to being persuaded I’m wrong here.

  5. @grichard,
    How exactly is not paying the President exactly going to solve the leverage issue? US President salary is $400k. Article II of the Constitution requires the president to be paid, so the President accepts just $1 per year.

    He has donated the rest of his quarterly salary since taking office, recipients have included the National Park Service, the U.S. Education Department, the Transportation Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

  6. Glad to see I can’t escape politics, Trump, or the government even here. Way to go Gary………and that’s not a complement. Stick to travel. Leave the rest at the door.

  7. There is a fine line though between preserving checks and balances on the Executive and executing the will of the people that elected the President’s agenda in a free election. There would be no point to having an executive and removing the leverage of the office.

  8. I worked for four different Members of Congress over the past decade and each of them was fastidious about declining first class upgrades on their flights to and from DC. Sometimes this required going so far as to call the airline after an upgrade to have them manually down-grade the Member back to economy. The upgrades were all normal perks of frequent flier status, but it just looks bad and is an easy situation to avoid. However, the folks I worked for aren’t members of the same party as Mr. Davis…

  9. LarryInNYC,

    It’s a common misconception that presidents have all their bills paid. They do have all business dinners and that kind of thing paid, but they have to pay restaurant/supermarket prices for all of the food they consume in the residence. (They even get billed a real amount for using the White House chef!) They pay for their dry cleaning. They actually pay for most of their cost of living. And most presidents are surprised at the size of their first monthly bill!

    Of course we pay for all the security aspects of their reasonable expenses. So if a president wants a Big Mac, he pays a couple of dollars, not the couple hundred it takes to send an agent out to get one.

  10. If you ever wanted a lesson in DC power politics, look at the cities served by perimeter exception routes out of DCA. Obviously it’s a perception issue — members of congress are perfectly free to spend their travel budget on domestic F if they wish. However, may would find the political costs exceeding the benefits.

  11. “Honestly, any congress person who flies first at any time is probably making a public relations mistake.”

    Exactly – most of our esteemed representatives in the House should be flying by the seat of their pants from a good, swift kick from the voters.

  12. “They aren’t generally upgraded ahead of other passengers, but are permitted to accept upgrades offered on the same terms as other similarly-situated passengers”

    Well, I personally witnessed a situation where, prior to takeoff, the pax in the F cabin were offered compensation to downgrade to Y. One passenger accepted and soon thereafter a senator – one whose appointment to the Senate had been the subject of significant controversy – emerged from Y to F.

    I have little problem with members of congress traveling in comfort similar to folks of similar import in the private sector. But bending the rules to achieve it is troublesome.

  13. Interesting comments. Also interesting about Presidential pay. Many Presidents don’t enter office (Truman, GW, Obama, Clintons, etc.) with much money but it seems interesting how some of them see wealth grow by the time they leave office.

    As far as confronting a member of congress…to me it would be like attacking the leader of a Non-profit agency for flying in first class. It doesn’t mean they paid for that from public or donated money. I do wonder how many politicians get extra (non-earned perks) like being GS or CK, etc.
    and then there are other issues of entitlement like:

  14. Interesting – a family member who worked at a much lower level was REQUIRED to not earn personal mileage when traveling for government business (and therefore not accruing personal status as well). Either things have changed since then or (as usual) those at the top have different rules than the “peons”

  15. @Estelle

    Indeed things have changed and the Federal Travel Regulations permit ordinary government employees to earn miles.

  16. I guess I am reading this situation differently. To me: A Democratic political activist harasses a Republican congressman who is flying in First Class to virtue signal and perhaps to increase visibility in a very political town. And it worked, since HuffPost (see quoted piece above) ran a hit piece on Donald Trump and Republicans. Gary, who apparently reads the HuffPost, included it in his blog. Now we are commenting on it.

    To me, flying first class domestic is the small stuff. Most people in Congress become rich due to being in Congress (both parties). I am guessing most congressmen can afford to buy first class tickets. [Do government employees have special rates? ] Moreover, once they leave congress, they can get plush lobbying jobs which assures their income for life. If they want to hide the money, their wives/husbands/children get high paying jobs there the normal person will not get. Read Peter Schweizer’s book “Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends”. He takes a pretty good swipe at both McConnell and Feinstein.

  17. Members of Congress get FREE parking at IAD and DCA. Airlines try to keep DCA flights on time and not cancelled because of Congressional members flying on them. The government pays for congressional flights home. Sweet for them.

    Pelosi should just make a counter offer to Trump’s counter offer. Until she does, she is 99% responsible for the shutdown. Just make an offer. Then it would be Trump’s fault if no counter offer.

  18. >Many Presidents don’t enter office (Truman, GW, Obama, Clintons, etc.) with much money but it seems interesting how some of them see wealth grow by the time they leave office.

    Hmm… I’m not sure which GW you mean. Bush? He was fairly wealthy, as is the rest of his family. Washington? He was a significant landowner in Virginia both from his own family and from his wife’s dower estate. In fact, most records suggest he was one of the wealthiest people in Virginia by the time of the Revolution. The Obamas were hardly poor upon entering office. Michelle was earning a very good salary from the University of Chicago Hospital, and Barack also had a good salary. They should have been wealthy by any conventional definition, and certainly by their own.

    Your general point has significant truth though: many presidents have emerged from office wealthier than they entered.

  19. In Australia, members of parliament (actually, any public servant above Deputy Secretary or equivalent) get travel perks well above and beyond what is available to the general public; for example, complimentary membership to the invitation-only (QF) Chairman Lounge and (VA) The Lounge. Or publicly-funded business class travel (quite a few per year) for life.

    Oh well, good to see ‘public’ servants being well looked after by big corporations… gotta love how the whole system works (for the rich!).

  20. So a liberal “taker ” is upset that someone who actually works and pays taxes to support the takers welfare is upset because the guy flew 1st class, yep seeing more and more of it , Cortez is riling up the socialist takers, watch ou America!

  21. LOL: Judicial Watch has a 3/10/09 press release: Documented with Pelosi staff emails, DOD FOIA letters, and so forth entitled: “Judicial Watch Uncovers Documents Detailing Pelosi’s Repeated Requests for Military Travel”. No comment necessary.

  22. Any elected congressional member, or cabinet member or even a federal judge on a court of appeals or higher should get first class travel at government expense. This type of encounter is only one reason among many as to why. The confrontational passenger should have been removed automatically for their uncontrolled display of hostility. Were they expecting an answer or argument? Or were they taking advantage of a controlled environment and captive audience where freedoms and rights are highly limited? Does every 1st class, business class, comfort+ class, passenger have to acknowledge random questions from other passengers?

  23. PLEASE no political conversation on this site. We get it more than enough from other sources. And by the way, it takes 2 no matter which side you are on. Either side could open the government by coming to a compromise.

  24. The Legislative Branch of the government is NOT controlled by the Executive Branch of the government. They are supposed to be a check and balance on the the Executive Branch unless they abdicate their responsibilities, which republicans have been doing with impunity.

    Your argument about the Legislative Branch bending to the will of the Executive Branch is bunk as the Legislative Branch can override the Executive Branch – IF they do their jobs.

    Special privileges for politicians need to go. They all need to be treated like the citizens they are supposed to be serving except in cases where security is the issue – though that can be a slippery slope argument if you want to split hairs but let’s just take the high road and leave it at that.

  25. Gary (unfortunately) delved into politics, but took it in an interesting direction, and the political replies from both sides have been interesting as well. I don’t really have anything to add, other than the observation that the Puffington story is deliberately inaccurate.

    However, I will reply to this from AlohaDaveKennedy:

    “most of our esteemed representatives in the House should be flying by the seat of their pants from a good, swift kick from the voters.”

    If you want Congressmen to be accountable to the voters, we must end gerrymandering. Most Congressmen are completely untouchable by their voters. For a long time my voting address was in the Golden State, where gerrymandering is simply an unfortunate part of life.

  26. @Joseph Amore. You said: “And by the way, it takes 2 no matter which side you are on. Either side could open the government by coming to a compromise.” I disagree. Trump, whatever you think of him, is clearly willing to make a deal. Chuck and Nancy are going for the win, that is “No wall, ever”.

  27. Dean, the KKK agress with you. And to the “no politics crew” the country is in a crisis being run by racists….silence is not acceptable or you are part of the problem

  28. ” individual members might bend towards the will of the President because they need to make rent” – You can’t be serious right? The salary of a congress person is like 174k. If a delay in a paycheck is going to mean they can’t make rent then they really shouldn’t be in congress because they have no financial sense at all. Really ridiculous for that argument to be suggested especially when many of them have ample amounts of their own money.

  29. When I lived in Palm Springs, I sat next to Senator Barbara Boxer in first Class, she had no qualms about being there, sitting on the aisle, she also accepted kudos from constituents. She also was not the least bit discreet talking with an aide on the phone about a disagreement she was having with President Obama.

  30. 535 Congress members, 34 weeks in session so weekly fly homes, $400 round trip (Thursday/Sunday flights) is about 7 million dollars…wow. And I am not sure as to transportation cost each way or do WE pay for that too.

  31. Rodney Davis is a total DICKHEAD! He is an out and out liar! Almost as bad as Trump! He is hated in Central IL. I know, I live here! He deserved to be confronted and his resulting behavior was typical for him.

  32. @DCperson Don’t forget that a Congresswoman from “your Party” did nothing when the airline she was traveling on bumped a PAYING first class passenger so that Congresswoman from “your Party” could sit in first class; and when that bumped passenger protested, the Congresswoman from “your Party” reached into her purse and pulled out her race card. Sad!

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