Capturing the scene
Guess who picks up the tab for VP visit?

By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in the Weekender, 07/01/04)

AP Photo
If you guessed that you, the taxpayers, get to foot the bill for a photo-op visit to Sioux City by Vice President Dick Cheney, you're right on the money. With Iowa at the heart of three battleground states, get used to it.

The scene was no different than any other airport security checkpoint - except there were no planes - just plain-clothed cops. And none of them were smiling.

The tight-faced screeners were all business last Friday as they worked their way through the group of reporters and the early entrants to Allee Gymnasium at Morningside College. Fail the metal detector walk through? No problem - the wand will find the offending forgotten piece of metal - or the search will continue until they do.

The reason for the stepped up security was a visit to Sioux City by one of the world's most powerful, and most storied, men. Dick Cheney, former White House Chief of Staff for President Ford, House Minority Whip by the end of Reagan's term, former Secretary of Defense for the first Bush administration, and perhaps most formidable, former Halliburton CEO during the exile of the Clinton years. 

Now he is arguably the most commanding and most influential Vice President the United States has ever seen. Tight security? "We can't comment on the security," says Sioux City Police Captain Pete Groetken, of the Sioux City Police Department, who fielded questions on the visit for the city this week.

"The city works with the Secret Service to provide whatever they ask for," says Groetken, including closing streets, re-channeling traffic and any other details. Bomb-sniffing dogs, daylong lockdown of the area, plus no one allowed in the balcony at the gym.  These are security routines I'd not experienced before. 

Was this tighter security than previous high-level visits? Groetken, who's seen his share of dignitaries visit in his 32 years on the force, agrees only that there is a heightened sensitivity to security issues these days.

And one of the little-known facts about Cheney's visit is that the community picks up the tab. That's right - the pay for police officers, fuel for patrol cars and anything else the VP demands is paid for from city coffers.

A glorified photo op
In a post 9/11 world, the reason for tight security was not hard to fathom, but the reason for the visit might be a little harder to understand. Dick Cheney, fresh from his "F-word" fracas on the Senate floor, coming to Siouxland to rally the party faithful? Rally them to what? It was not a fund-raiser, nor was it an open event. It was clearly at best a "photo op" - but in Sioux City?

Perhaps it was coincidence that the Democrats were meeting in Des Moines that same day at their party convention. Just as it was coincidental last weekend when Nebraska's Democrats were meeting in Lincoln the same weekend Cheney decided it was time to visit his old hometown. Scooping up the free airwaves seems pretty petty for one of the world's most powerful elite, but it certainly seems the likely reason for a visit here. The speech was almost identical to one he gave in Lincoln. Change the name of the contenders for the lesser office, mention the imminent loss of tax cuts if Bush loses, and tell everyone what a loser Kerry is, and you are off. Is that a reason for a visit?

There was no Q&A session regarding the big headlines that Cheney has garnered lately: the Senate floor profanity session, his unsubstantiated reasons for the war in Iraq, and his secret meetings with big energy executives, among others.

In Lincoln, there was the additional need to hold a fund-raiser to put the Republican contender for the U.S. House seat on an even footing with the Democratic candidate. It worked. One visit, $100,000 later, and it is a new ballgame in the important Nebraska congressional race.

Obviously, the Republican Party is reading the tea leaves, and they see not only a tight race (Iowa is a swing state) for the White House, but perhaps some potential defections in the House and Senate seats as well.

If so, the Nebraska race is important for two reasons: the House race, which could swing control of that body if enough Democrats win. But there's another wrinkle now: Nebraska's constitution allows for a split in Electoral College votes, and remember that one additional Electoral College vote last election and we'd be saying "W who?"

Sioux City media dominates much of the airwaves in Northeast Nebraska. Back-to-back visits to Lincoln and Sioux City would ensure the people in Nebraska's first district that the White House knows how important they are.  Nebraskans and Iowans are not quite important enough for the White House to foot the bill for the visit, however.

Lincoln officials, clearly frustrated by the feeling of being used as political pawns, have thrown down the gauntlet. They've tallied the overtime, and prepared a bill to cover the expenses of Cheney's political visit. "We're always happy to see the Vice President, or President, visit," says Mark Bowen, chief of staff for Lincoln's mayor. "But we know that the federal government gets reimbursed for expenses in a clearly political visit. Isn't it only fair for the city to also see something in return for the overtime expense?"

What does it cost?
Bowen says the costs include overtime for the police, fire, ambulance, public works and others. So how much does a brief overnight visit cost? "$32,000," says Bowen, who noted that Cheney paid the government $15,000 for the use of Air Force Two on this clearly partisan trip. Doesn't that prove that the VP knows the expense is not a public responsibility?

Figuring the bill is easy. The problem is deciding where to send it. "We haven't found anyone to take it yet," Bowen says.

So, what did Cheney's visit cost Sioux City? No one knows, says Groetken - the total expenses haven't been tallied yet, since they're spread across numerous departments. But reason says it would be at least five digits. That would mean a minimum of $10 per person that turned out to see Cheney at Morningside. Cheap, considering that his fund-raiser in Lincoln last week required a much heftier contribution from the "party faithful."

But of course, this cost was even less, since in Sioux City, as in Lincoln, the cost was not to those faithful voters who turned out, but to all taxpayers - Republican, Democrat, Green, Independent - and non-voting taxpayers.

So - what about you? Did you get your money's worth? With South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska all home to important races, and readily accessible from Sioux City, I'd expect to see at least one Presidential visit before Nov. 2. If you think Cheney's expenses were high, just wait. The race is just beginning.

A former City Councilperson in South Sioux City, Gifford served as political commentator for Clear Channel radio station KMNS in Sioux City, Iowa from 2004 to 2005, and has written articles and essays for local, regional and national magazines over the past 10 years.

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