"How much do state dinners cost? They ain't cheap" teased a headline on CBSNews.com this morning. But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there's more.
In his February 11 story, longtime CBS Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller reported not only the pretty penny the U.S. taxpayer foots for state dinners in the Obama era, but how the Obama State Department -- first under Clinton and continuing under John Kerry -- has been less than forthcoming about the cost. Knoller had to resort to a Freedom of Information Act request and House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been given the cold shoulder altogether (story excerpted in full, emphases mine):
WASHINGTON – Diplomatic dinners don’t come cheap.
The issue is again raised as President Obama hosts the seventh state dinner of his administration Tuesday for visiting French President Francois Hollande.
Records from the State Department Office of Protocol, whose budget covers state dinners, show they can cost taxpayers in excess of half a million dollars per event.
In response to a Freedom of Information request to which it took the State Department 13 months to respond, CBS News has obtained the Office of Protocol’s expense calculations for the first five state dinners of the Obama presidency.
- Nov. 24, 2009 – State dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. $572,187.36
- May 19, 2010 – State dinner for President Felipe Calderon of Mexico. $563,479.92
- Jan. 19, 2011 – State dinner for President Hu Jintao of China. $412,329.73.
- June 7, 2011 – State dinner for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. $215,883.36
- Oct. 13, 2011 – State dinner for President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. $203,053.34
The State Department has yet to respond to another Freedom of Information request filed seven months ago for its rundown of the expenses for the state dinner honoring British Prime Minister David Cameron on March 14, 2012.
Congress has been waiting for similar information from the State Department even longer.
In a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated November 1, 2012, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, expressed concern about the costs of state dinners and asked for an accounting.
“Please provide,” wrote Issa, “an itemized list of costs and expenses for each of the last six state dinners, including, but not limited to, amounts paid, including reimbursements, for non-government event planners, entertainers and chefs.”
Issa gave Clinton two weeks, until November 15, 2012, to respond to his request. A staffer says the Committee never received a response from Clinton or the State Department.
Now, to be fair, state dinners are a legitimate cost of government business, although the president should take care to keep costs down. It's a balancing act, of course, but you can throw an appropriately lavish dinner for a visiting head of state without breaking the bank.
But of course also at issue here is the contempt which the Obama administration has about given both the Congress and the press this information in a timely manner and in a comprehensive fashion. The American taxpayer deserves timely accounting and the American news consumer deserves a press which is not asleep at the switch in demanding the same from the administration.
Don't expect this to be made a big deal by anyone else in the media, but you can bet that similar expenses under say a President Bush or a President Romney would meet stricter scrutiny, as would either of those Republicans dragging their feet and requiring a FOIA request just to account for all the money spent.