Accountability

Published — August 27, 2010 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Congressional expense reports slowly move online from dusty basement

Introduction

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. For watchdog organizations like the NTU and LegiStorm, the only way to make the data usable for comparison and analyses is by hiring workers to spend a couple weeks manually entering each number. The NTU wants the House to make the data available in a searchable database and to improve the detail and accuracy of reported expenses.

Karissa Marcum, who works for the House chief administrative officer, attributes the reporting inconsistencies to complicated government accounting. “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,” says Marcum.

Despite the problems with the online House expense reports, that chamber is still far ahead of the Senate.

Currently, the only way to access the Senate’s twice-yearly expense reports is by leafing through the hardcopy volumes in the Senate’s Hart office building on Capitol Hill or by visiting the handful of federal libraries across the country. “People don’t have easy access to these libraries, they don’t know that it’s there, and they don’t know how to look it up,” said Jock Friedly, founder of LegiStorm, a website that publishes details about Hill staff salaries, foreign gifts to lawmakers, and their travel. Each six-month report of Senate expenses runs about 2,000 pages in two volumes.

An amendment attached to an annual spending bill last year requires the Senate to begin posting expense reports on the web in a searchable, itemized format. The Secretary of the Senate plans to make the reports available online beginning with the reporting period of April-September in 2011, but a spokeswoman for the office declined to comment on the status of the project or when the data will be posted online.

“The Senate may actually have some less egregious patterns of expenditures than the House,” Sepp said. “Franked mail is limited much more tightly on the Senate side. The House typically outspends the Senate by four or five to one, even though each chamber represents the same number of constituents.”

ABOUT THE DATA

What: Expense reports filed by U.S. representatives and senators

Where: House expense reports available online each quarter at: http://disbursements.house.gov/index.shtml. Senate’s twice-yearly expense reports now available only in paper form at Hart office building in Washington, D.C. and in Federal Depository Libraries around the country.

Availability: Secretary of the Senate plans to publish reports online in 2011 but details unavailable.

Usability: House expense reports in PDF format and difficult to search.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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