A Secret Service agent opens the door to President Obama's limousine in October 2011 at Andrews Air Force Base. Cliff Owen/AP
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In these troubled economic times, it is perhaps not surprising that the federal government is a bit touchy on the question of just how many limousines it owns and operates. But now it turns out that even defining a limousine is a complex topic worthy of a government memo.

Just over a year ago, based on information in the annual Fleet Report issued by the General Services Administration, the Center for Public Integrity reported that the number of limousines owned by government agencies rose 73 percent from 2008 to 2010, to a total of 412. It was clear from the responses of government officials that a limo increase was not something the Obama Administration was anxious to take credit for.

In fact, at the time, a GSA spokeswoman asserted that the limo numbers in its own report were not reliable. “The categories in the fleet report are overly broad, and the term ‘limousine’ is not defined,” she said. The spokeswoman concluded that GSA “cannot say that its report accurately reflects the number of limousines.”

It’s now come to light that six weeks after the story ran, the GSA sent a memo to federal agencies with new guidance on what — exactly what — constitutes a limousine.

According to the memo, some agencies had reported vehicles that weren’t so classy — even shuttle buses — as limos, which a GSA spokesman said skewed the 2010 numbers.

A limo, the GSA memo states, “is a vehicle with a lengthened wheelbase, generally driven by a dedicated driver” with possible customization, including “privacy panels” and stretching for capacity and comfort. “Vehicles, including shuttle buses, without the aforementioned characteristics should not be reported as limousines,” the memo says.

The memo seems to have had quite an effect. Last month, the agency released its annual fleet report for 2011, and predictably, the number of government limousines plummeted, all the way down to 158, from 2010’s 412. That’s a drop of 62 percent.

Hillary Clinton’s State Department appears to have had the most trouble adding up its limos back in 2010. That year, the agency reported 259. In the 2011 report, the total is down to just 50.

In response to questions about its 2010 numbers, the department last year told the Center that it defined limousines as vehicles that carry VIPs, rather than the type of car, but also said its large armored fleet was in proportion to the number of diplomats serving in “high threat environments.”

Under the new limo criteria, the Department of Homeland Security shot to the front of pack in 2011, with 106 limousines. A DHS spokesman said the agency’s limos are owned by the Secret Service, which is under the agency’s umbrella. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said the agency uses the vehicles to “transport dignitaries, people we are required by law to protect.”

The DHS total was followed by the State Department’s 50, and one at the Department of Justice. The Navy was the only limo gainer in 2011, adding a single car to its fleet. A number of agencies and departments that reported limousines in 2010, including the Army (18), the Agency for International Development (6), the Department of Interior (3), the Department of Veterans Affairs (1) and the Environmental Protection Agency (1), reported no limousines for 2011.

Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, questioned whether the GSA simply fixed an accounting error or is trying to drive down the number of limousines in its report for political reasons.

“I would never make the mistake of underestimating their ability to be incompetent,” Paige said. “Whether there is something more — wink, wink, nod, nod — here, you just can’t know. I can see if the [definition] issue is between a town car and a limo. But not shuttle buses. It doesn’t make sense.”

GSA officials concede that the new definition of a limo makes it impossible to compare the number of government limousines over time. “Going forward,” said GSA spokesman Adam Elkington, “the data will be much more accurate from year to year”.

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