WASHINGTON — Minnesota Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack spends more taxpayer money per month on a vehicle lease than almost every other member of the U.S. House, according to a MinnPost review of reports detailing each House member’s spending. But his office said the special terms of the lease — driven by House regulations out of his control as well as the mileage needed to traverse the expansive 8th District — explain the high cost.
In March, Cravaack leased a four-wheel drive Chevy Equinox for $1,700, according to House statement of disbursement reports, which catalogue members’ official spending on office costs, including staff salaries, supplies and travel costs.
That $1,700 figure included a series of lease start-up fees, a spokesman said, adding that the car will cost about $1,000 every month for the remainder of the lease.
Out of the several dozen lawmakers who lease cars using federal money, only seven besides Cravaack make monthly payments of $1,000 or more on a single vehicle lease. Politico first reported details of Cravaack’s lease.
Minnesota Democrats quickly hammered Cravaack, questioning why he’s supported dramatic cuts to federal spending while making taxpayers fund a lavish lease for his car.
“You have repeatedly used fiscal responsibility and government spending as reasons for your policy positions and the excuses for why you voted against the interests of those whom you were elected to serve,” state DFL Chair Ken Martin wrote in an open letter to Cravaack. “Where was that common sense perspective when you chose to make taxpayers pay $1,000 a month for you to lease an automobile? Where was that concern for fiscal responsibility when your office spent $1,700 on that same lease in March alone?”
House rules, district size add to cost
Cravaack’s office said the nature of House rules and other district-specific circumstances led to the higher leasing costs.
House rules allow members to use federal money to lease cars, but only for up to two years at a time (House members have just two-year terms between elections). They are not allowed to purchase official vehicles.
Shorter leases and less money up front means that dealers are going to end up charging more month-to-month.
A four-wheel drive 2011 Chevy Equinox retails for $28,975, according to the website of Central Chevrolet Chrysler, the North Branch dealership from which Cravaack leased the vehicle. MinnPost found comparable vehicles available under three-year lease terms, with mileage restrictions, for about $367 a month.
However, Cravaack’s lease is for 22 months, not the standard 39 months, spokesman Shawn Ryan said. The rules also limit how much federal money members can use for a down payment at the front end of their lease.
And Cravaack’s office anticipated going well over the normally allotted 12,000 miles of travel a year, so they purchased 30,000 miles at extra cost. Cravaack’s district covers about 28,000 square miles, and “we were going to go way over the 12,000 miles on the regular lease,” Ryan said.
Leasing will eventually cost the Cravaack camp less than it would if the office reimbursed each individual staff member for mileage, Ryan said.
House rules say staff and members can be reimbursed up to $0.51 per mile when travelling in personal cars on official business. Ryan said office staff is travelling throughout the district using the leased car during an aggressive constituent outreach campaign.
Ryan said Cravaack chose an Equinox, with its large seating area and four-wheel drive, because it allows staffers to travel more safely through the district during harsh northern Minnesota winters than smaller cars.
Peterson: ‘It wouldn’t be worth it’
The only other Minnesota representative to list automobile leases on his disbursement statement was 7th District Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, whose office leases two Ford Focuses (one for each its Willmar and Detroit Lakes offices) for a total of $652 a month. They paid $756 a month last Congress, but are paying less this session because Peterson extended his leases on the older cars after he was reelected.
Both Peterson’s leases are for 24 months. One has a 16,000-mile-a-year allotment, the other,17,333 miles.
Peterson justified the leases using the same reasons as Cravaack, primarily that a lease ends up costing less than staff mileage reimbursements for a congressman and his office that have to traverse a large district to meet with constituents.
But Peterson said he is using smaller, cheaper Ford Focuses to save money.
Peterson’s office used to lease a four-wheel drive vehicle before the financial collapse in late 2008. At that point, car dealerships began asking more for the monthly leases and Peterson said he wasn’t willing to pay the $800 or $900 his dealership was asking.
“I’m just not going to spend that kind of money,” he said. In his case, “if you’re paying $1,000 a month, it wouldn’t be worth it.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.