Washington Prowler

Too Poor to Pay

Why are certain guests being charged for their White House meals?

By 8.3.09

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Recently, high-profile visitors to the White House, including senior corporate executives, have found themselves paying for their own meals when sitting down with President Barack Obama, something unheard of in previous White Houses, according to former aides to President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

Thus far, there have been at least three instances -- the most recent coming last Friday -- where CEOs or other non-political guests were asked before arriving to the West Wing to provide credit card information so that their meals could be billed to them. According to one source, the meals cost between $20 and $40. "That's not including tip," the current White House aide quipped.

The White House has officially stated that reason to charge for the meals is to remove any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest, according to a statement put out by White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki. But there are no rules barring the President from buying lunch for guests, whether through the White House budget or his own wallet.

In fact, those presidential employees with guest privileges at the White House dining room, known as the "mess," cannot charge their guests' lunch to White House accounts. With a few exceptions, all employees pay for their guests out of their own pocket.

So, with no ethics issue barring the President from buying his guests lunch, what are the reasons? According to another White House source, the Obama Administration in its first 200 days may have burned through much of its budgets for the Executive Residence and the White House's annual entertainment account.

"We've done a lot more entertaining than previous administrations have," says the White House aide. "The whispering here is that we're over budget and where we can, we're trying to save money."

However, when journalists were feted with other friends of the White House on the South Lawn last month, with dunk tanks, food and drink, they were not asked to pay for their entertainment.

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