Claiming a milestone in Congressional transparency, the House on Monday for the first time released its quarterly expense reports online. But first, Congressional administrators erased a vast array of details on the expenditures of House Members, making it impossible to determine what much of the money was actually spent on.
As a result, while millions of Americans will for the first time be able to download and peruse the 3,400 pages detailing how Members spent their taxpayer-funded office accounts, they will no longer be able to see what items the Members purchased, which staffers were traveling on the taxpayer dime or where the Members are renting district offices.
Transparency advocates have for years urged Congress to make available online the quarterly “Statement of Disbursements of the House,” which are essentially three giant ledger books listing each expenditure of every House office.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) committed earlier this year to publishing an electronic version of the reports, and she issued a statement Monday hailing the first release.
“The Statement of Disbursement provides a full accounting of Members’ and officers’ spending for official Congressional business. The continued publication of these statements online will expand accountability to taxpayers and the press,” Pelosi said.
“The New Direction Congress has passed unprecedented disclosure and lobbying reform laws, created an independent ethics office, and will continue to operate in a transparent and accountable manner,” she added.
But the new disclosure books actually provide far less information than the same reports contained six months ago.
In the printed versions of the disclosure reports covering April through June, there are hundreds of references to computers, laptops, televisions, cameras, printers and all sorts of office equipment, frequently described down to the model number.
In the new reports, all of those purchases are described simply as “comp hardware purch” or “equipment purchase.”
In the old books, hundreds of trips were listed with the destination and whether it was the Member or a staffer traveling.
For example, in the April through June books, Pelosi’s office reported paying airfare for the Speaker’s personal assistant to Boston on March 26 and New York on April 8, as well as trips for other staff members to New York, San Francisco and Florida.
The new version of the disbursement books eliminates all details of who traveled where. The July through September disbursement books list a little more than $10,000 in “commercial transportation” expenses in the Speaker’s office, with no other details.
The amount of detail in the disbursement reports has declined for decades. A report from the Clerk of the House covering October through December 1989 indicated that Pelosi, then in her second term, spent $248 on “staff – air transp. To Washington, DC office” as well as $30 on “Member – ground transp. Taxi from airport to home (district).”
Shortly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that jolted her Congressional district, Pelosi’s office spent $5,433 on “labels on cards, cards, calling cards, newsletter earthquake.”
None of those details would appear in the current disbursement books.
The new system also eliminates the location of Members’ district offices in the description of their rental payments.
So Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) has five district offices ranging in rent from $400 to $1,800 a month, but the new books no longer indicate what cities they are in. A reader would have to go to an old book to find out that the $1,800 rent is for an office in Rockwall, while the $504 expenditure is for an office in Sherman.
A search of the online document also turns up not a single “camera,” “television” or “printer” among the purchases.
From April through June, the printed books indicated that Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) paid a company called Capitol Idea Technology nearly $46,000 on technology products, including $11,410 for “video conf. equipment,” $149.99 for “Klipsch Promedia 2.1 speakers,” and $5,308 for two “Panasonic ‘Toughbook’ laptops,” as well as about $3,000 for extended warranties on the equipment.
By contrast, from July to September, the online books indicate that Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) paid the same company $7,600 for a series of transactions described only as “equipment purchase,” “comp hardware purch” or “equipment maintenance.” There is no way of telling what the Congresswoman actually bought.
Apparently, the Members themselves have not changed the way they report expenses to the Chief Administrative Officer of the House, but that office has changed the way it enters the information into its expenditures database.
Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for CAO Dan Beard told Roll Call in an e-mail, “The process was updated. In order to bring a higher degree of consistency and accuracy to the SOD document, the online version is generated via a process that more strictly applies the use of standard government accounting codes, similar to those used by the Executive Branch.”
The new guidelines for accounting codes also apply to the print edition of the books.
But Tom Anfinson, a former accounting official for the House who now prepares the books for more than a dozen Members, said Congress has long used the standard government accounting codes; Members just offered additional detail that was not required, and the CAO employees entered that information into the system.
Accounting in the House is based on a “voucher” system. Any receipt generated in a Member’s office is saved, and the office completes a voucher explaining what the receipt was for and to whom the CAO’s finance office should make out a check.
The vouchers and receipts are then turned over to the CAO, where requests are reviewed, checks are cut and information is entered into a database for the disbursement books. Recurring expenses like rent are paid directly by the CAO without a voucher.
“We have changed nothing from the standpoint of voucher descriptions,” Anfinson said. “When we do a voucher, we will put down the account number and the vendor name and some description – like we would put down ‘camcorder’ so you could identify the thing.” That information is provided in addition to the standard budget accounting codes used throughout government.
A House leadership staffer said the change in accounting creates “a system where there is a standard use of codes across the board so you can make apples-to-apples comparisons in regards to transportation or office expenses.”
This source said that under the old system, the description of any item was “up to the whimsy of an accounting staffer” entering the information into the database. Now the expenditures are filed into a series of fixed accounting codes, creating more standardized reporting.
According to this staffer, “An accountant would say, ‘I can actually see some trends here. I can compare these accounts in a quantitative way,’ which is more important than which laundromat you used … or which store you chose to buy doughnuts at for some Member meeting.”
The leadership staffer said that while reporters may want to pick out individual expenditures to poke fun at Members, the reports are intended – like any accounting system – to allow broad comparisons of spending trends among offices.
But Sunlight Foundation editorial director Bill Allison said in an e-mail, “Releasing incomplete office expense information online demonstrates the House’s one step forward, two steps back approach to transparency. One would think that members who dispose of trillions of dollars in taxpayer money would be up front about how they’re managing their office budgets. If members were worried how flat screen TV purchases and the like would look to their constituents during tough economic times, hiding the information serves only to raise questions about the entire House.”
Jock Friedly, president of LegiStorm, a Web site that tracks Congressional finances, said the details of these expenditures are critical in determining what is or is not a legitimate office expense. “Maybe there is a legitimate explanation for the purchase of a flat-screen TV or the trip to Florida … but without that information, you can’t even ask the question,” Friedly said.