Congressional expense reports slowly move online, but clunky format impedes transparency
The House of Representatives took a step toward greater government transparency last year by posting its expense reports online, but the clunky PDF format makes it difficult to compare lawmakers’ outlays or to pinpoint exactly how the money is spent. The Senate, on the other hand, is moving at a glacial pace and has yet to offer details about its plan to start publishing expense reports online in 2011.
Each U.S. lawmaker gets an annual allowance of between $1.3 million and $4.5 million to operate their offices, pay staff, buy equipment and supplies, and pay for travel. The amount varies according to whether a lawmaker is a member of the House or Senate, and how far away his or her home state is from Washington.
In June 2009, following an outcry in Britain over Parliamentarians’ expenses, Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the House chief administrative officer to begin publishing the chamber’s expense reports online. The so-called Statement of Disbursements is a quarterly document that captures spending by House lawmakers and staff in three volumes totaling some 3,000 pages.
But now that it’s online, the House spending data is still difficult for taxpayers to analyze because of inconsistencies in how individual lawmakers report where the money went and the PDF format used to present the data.
“It falls short of many transparency standards that advocates and the general public expect from governmental entities today,” says Peter Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayer Union (NTU).
For example, the House allowances and office spending totals are listed in separate volumes. To compare them requires entering data by hand for all of the chamber’s 435 lawmakers, Sepp said, plus the chamber’s five nonvoting representatives.