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Reports Obscure House Expenses

The massive reports published each quarter by the House Chief Administrative Officer detailing the expenses incurred by each Congressional office may not be a reliable guide of how the offices actually spent their budgets, according to documents reviewed by Roll Call.

Since Congressional offices are not required to release any information on their own expenses — and dozens refused Roll Call’s request to do so — there is no way to confirm the veracity of the reports published by the CAO, but Roll Call’s review provides ample reason to doubt that they are reliable.

When a Congressional office incurs an official expense — for example, a D.C. staff member staying in a hotel while visiting the district office — the expense is documented with a receipt. To get reimbursement for that expense, the staff member completes a form called a voucher that describes the expense and the date it was incurred, then submits the receipt and voucher to the CAO.

The CAO staff reimburses the aide and enters the expense into its database, but changes the description of the expense to one of several predetermined categories to keep its coding consistent. This is how the entry appears in the quarterly “Statement of Disbursements,” widely known as the “beige books.”

According to Jeff Ventura, spokesman for the CAO, “The Member’s office submits an expense voucher and receipts and the expense is then coded under the category that best defines the expense using a predefined code. This is done to ensure uniformity in the Statement of Disbursements.” Ventura said the categories “are standard classifications throughout the Federal Government.”

But that process both eliminates details from the reporting of the expense and introduces human error that results in some expenses being reported incorrectly, according to sources familiar with the process.

Over the past several months, Roll Call has asked dozens of House Members to provide access to the vouchers for their offices, and nearly every office declined.

The offices that did participate did so only on the grounds that Roll Call not reveal their names, for fear of retribution from other Members. As one staff member said in declining to provide vouchers from his office, “We don’t want to be ‘that guy’” who creates an uncomfortable situation for other Members of Congress.

The vouchers Roll Call reviewed indicate that much of the information included in the beige books is not the same as the information included on the vouchers, and in many cases it is less specific, and in some cases it is simply incorrect.

For example, one voucher Roll Call reviewed indicated a $445 payment to Verizon Wireless for one month of service for the “Member phone,” suggesting that the Member is logging significant cell phone bills every month. But the payment for that bill was listed in the Statement of Disbursements as “telecommunications charges,” eliminating the detail about whose phone was being used.

Another telephone charge in the same office was apparently miscoded by the CAO staff, and it appeared in the beige books as “janitorial and related services.”

In another Congressional office, a voucher was submitted for reimbursement of a staff member’s travel expenses, but the disbursement books list the payment as going to a different staff member.

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