Public interest groups praised Speaker Nancy Pelosis (D-Calif.) decision Wednesday to put Members official expenditures online, but they cautioned that the usability of such a system remains to be seen.
The proof will be in the electronic pudding, said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. The main question is how searchable will it be.
In a letter Wednesday, Pelosi directed House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard to begin publishing the Statement of Disbursements online. The quarterly statements detail the budgets of Members and committees, including salaries, office expenses and travel.
For years, that information has been available only in large books, and each quarter produces thousands of pages of information. Though the books are open to the public, anyone interested in their contents has to trek to the Capitol complex or place an order with the Government Printing Office.
Nonprofits have been calling for the online release of disbursements for years, to no avail. But now, with Pelosis decision, the CAO expects to have the information up by Aug. 31.
Weve been looking and working on this issue for a couple of months, and now we are assured that this can happen in the very near term, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.
Craig Holman, the legislative representative for Public Citizen, called it an excellent move. With an online version of disbursements, the group will be able to continuously monitor Members spending rather than spend days searching through physical files.
These are public records, so they should not be tucked away in the basement, he said.
CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura said the office will make PDFs of the records available on a yet-to-be-determined Web site. The site will hold only future Statements of Disbursements, and the only search capability will be that which comes with Adobe software.
But in an e-mail, Ventura said the House will examine ways to enhance the search feature as officials implement a new financial processing system. That system is expected to be completed during the 112th Congress.
Public interest groups said the PDFs are far from ideal but will make it easier for outside groups to disseminate the information.
Jock Friedlys Web site, LegiStorm, was the first to take information from the disbursement books and organize it in a searchable online database.
However, so far the site has listed only Member and staffer salaries. Any expenditures beyond that would be too labor-intensive to include, since Friedlys staff has to enter everything by hand.
The PDFs will make the job a lot easier, he said, and they could make it possible to add more information to the site.
Were definitely going to use this, he said. No question about it this will allow us to add other expenditures.
With the Members expenditures more accessible, all types of spending may be exposed and questioned.
In 2008, House Members got $1.3 million to $1.8 million office budgets, according to the Congressional Research Service.
All spending must be for official duties, but Members still enjoy flexibility. They can spend it on extensive travel, leases for luxury cars and expensive gadgets. Anything purchased, however, remains the property of the House.
The Senate works much the same way, though its budgets tend to be larger because Senators represent more constituents. The chambers disbursements are not online.
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, said the House has made an important step but still has a long way to go to be truly transparent.
Theres certainly a spectrum of the kind of disclosures they can do, Wonderlich said. Up to today, they were one level above nothing.