The government may have finished the 2012 fiscal year $1.1 trillion in the hole, but that didn't stop it from making a whopping $23 million purchase for a new luxury fleet of "parade limousines" for the next president just before the budget closed.
The Secret Service squeezed in the purchase on September 28 -- just three days from the end of the fiscal year -- and it skipped competitive bidding normally required to get taxpayers the best price, according to federal purchase records reviewed by the Washington Guardian.
And the beneficiary of this big buy -- twice the size of the last limo shopping spree two years ago -- was none other than General Motors, which remains partly owned by the government.
The purchase continues an aggressive campaign by the Obama administration to upgrade the limo fleet used to transport White House and State Department VIPs, which has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over last four years.
The Secret Service makes no apologies, insisting the purchase was in the works for some time but didn't get completed until late last month. And as for skipping the bidding process, the service insists only GM makes the type of armored car it likes for protecting the president, the first family and other VIPs in government.
Of course, there's no way to check, because the famed presidential protection agency refuses to say what features the car includes for security reasons.
"These are state-of-the-art armored vehicles and they contain state-of-the-art protective equipment and countermeasures,” Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said, explaining that such purchases get reviewed by higher ups at the Homeland Security Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget.
"We have to justify our budget to DHS and to OMB just like every other government agency. We’re not spending blindly here, we don’t get a blank check," he insisted.
The service is also predictably tight-lipped about why it needed to buy $23 million in limos this year when it dished out $11 million for the same type of cars back in 2010, according to federal purchasing records.
For a making a less-than-transparent, spare-no-expense limo purchase at a time when financially stretched Americans are trying to squeeze extra miles out of their own cars, the Secret Service wins this week's Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to an example of excessive government spending.
Armored limos have long been the iconic ground transportation for presidents, vice presidents, their families and other federal VIPs. And they are predictably expensive.
The cars are not on-the-market models that are upgraded. Instead, they are built from the ground up to ensure they have all the required safety and security equipment, Donovan said. The Secret Service does not disclose how much each vehicle costs due to concerns about national security.
Upon taking office, President Barack Obama received a new limousine, nicknamed "The Beast." The Secret Service does not disclose the capabilities of the car due to security concerns. But rumors say the modified Cadillac is bullet and explosive proof, with advanced safety equipment like electronic jamming and, possibly, a supply of blood for transfusions in the event of an emergency.
Security features become outdated, Donovan said, and the service is constantly working to ensure they have "the safest vehicles available." He declined to say what the average life expectancy of one of the limos is, citing security concerns.
"Those vehicles degrade over time and they have to be replaced," he said, adding that the service is always looking for "newer, better way to protect people."
The Secret Service does compete contracts, Donovan said, but in this case GM had special skills. "For this particular contract, they had a unique capability to fulfill it for us," he said, declining to be more specific for security reasons.
The government has been purchasing more limousines, according to a 2011 study by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. The federal fleet of limos increased 73 percent since Obama took office, though the Center noted some of the increases could have come from programs started during George W. Bush's administration.
The data from the General Services Administration shows the increase has largely been from the State Department. The Secret Service actually reduced the number of limousines it used between 2008 and 2010 according to the data.
But with tightening budgets, it might be time to reevaluate how much can be spent on armored vehicles. Shortly after taking office, President Obama worked with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stop a multi-billion dollar overhall of the president's helicopter fleet.
It remains to be seen whether Congress will question the latest round of limo purchases. But at least there's one silver lining for taxpayers: GM threw in the regular maintenance for the vehicles for the $23 million pricetag.