Editorial: Money for What?

How Congress Spends on Itself Is Harder to Tell Than It Should Be

Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:02pm

At $235,000 a year, expense accounts for top Congressional leaders is a sub-pittance by comparison to the federal budget or even the legislative branch budget. Our problem with it is that it’s hard to tell what the money is spent on.

And that’s an example of a much bigger problem: the lack of full transparency in Congressional disbursement reporting in general and the inconsistency of reporting by the House and Senate.

As Roll Call reported Tuesday, “expense allowances” for leaders are allocated separately from and in addition to the normal costs — salaries, equipment, travel, etc. — of running a leadership office.

As a Senate aide explained it, the money seems to be spent mainly on meals — policy luncheons and entertaining guests. And, evidently, not all of the Senate leadership’s $180,000 or the House leadership’s $55,000 gets spent.

But exactly what the money goes for is not clear, nor is it clear why the Senate figure has tripled since 1997, while the House’s has remained the same.

As we say, the money involved is a trifle, but the legislative branch as a whole spends $4.7 billion a year. Lack of transparency with that money is a more serious problem.

One issue is that the House and Senate report on different schedules and with different levels of specificity. Moreover, House disbursements are reported online; the Senate’s still are only available on paper.

But even the House reports cannot be sorted or manipulated as data, so it would be an enormous chore to determine, for instance, how much the chamber paid Verizon for cell phone service last year.

Generally, House disbursement reports (issued quarterly) contain more data than Senate reports (issued twice a year) — except when it comes to travel. Senate reports itemize Senators’ and staff travel with dates and places; House reports just list each office’s “commercial travel.”

The House formerly published detailed reports on equipment purchases. Now, they don’t. Invoices that underlie the expenditures are not available to the public, and Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Senate reports, while detailed on salaries and travel, are next to opaque on equipment purchases and rents paid for state offices.

Conceivably, full reporting might provide the media, the public or Congressional watchdogs with evidence of wrongdoing — of exorbitant rents paid to local real estate cronies, maybe.

But, beyond potential corruption, there are just efficiency questions at issue: How many flat screen TVs or computers did Congress buy last year? How much is it spending on travel, and to where? How much does it spend on contractors and consultants? With a calculator, you might be able to add up the travel. With the equipment and outsourcing, you can’t tell.

House Republicans are proposing to cut overall legislative branch expenses by 4 percent below fiscal 2010 levels — a lot less than the 16 percent that they want to cut the rest of the civilian side of government. But leadership expense allowances aren’t targeted for any cut. They could use a trim, just to share the pain.