July 23, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

Disbursement Records Now Online

House Members’ office expenditures go online today, making it easier to dissect Representatives’ travel expenses, staff salaries and even their office supply budgets.

For decades, the House has released its statement of disbursement only in thick books printed every three months. The books detail how Members and committees spend their office budgets. Anyone who wanted to get that information had to go to the Capitol complex or order a copy through the Government Printing Office.

But starting at about noon today, the public will be able to access the information on House.gov. Three PDFs — each the equivalent of one SOD book — will be available, along with a glossary of terms and a frequently asked questions page. The PDFs will appear online at the same time the physical books are released, which is about two months after the quarter ends (today’s disbursements, for example, will show expenditures from July 1 to Sept. 30).

Last week, public interest groups were already preparing for the disbursement’s release, hoping that its online form would allow them to disseminate information more easily and quickly. The Sunlight Foundation, for example, plans to parcel out the SOD to its volunteers, who will use it to help build a useful database. At the very least, the nonprofit will develop a program to allow visitors to search information by a Member’s name or district, said spokeswoman Gabriela Schneider.

But the online release is still somewhat of a letdown for many groups: The PDFs will be searchable by keyword, but the information won’t be sortable or extractable. In essence, it will be almost identical to the unwieldy books — just online.

“It’s more like a baby step than a giant leap,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. “At least the general public won’t have to schlepp to the general repository to read the book. Beyond that, it will still be pretty difficult to discern patterns or analyze the data.”

Jeff Ventura, spokesman for House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, said the House doesn’t have any plans to put the information into a more accessible and searchable form. But if there’s a “huge demand” in the future, he said, the chamber may reconsider.

“We’d be disrupting a process that currently exists,” he said, “and we’re very hesitant to mess with that.”

Transparency proponents have been pressuring Congress to put disbursements online for years, but neither the House nor the Senate was inclined to acquiesce. Details on how Member offices spend taxpayer money can be intrinsically controversial, and though the money has to be spent on official duties, Members are given some flexibility. For example, they can spend it on expensive gadgets or even luxury cars — all of which remain the property of the House. But earlier this year, both the House and the Senate pledged to make such information more accessible. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the House’s intention to put the expenditures online in June, while the Senate inserted a provision in the legislative branch spending bill requiring the chamber to put its disbursements in a “searchable, itemized” format.

The Senate’s online debut, however, won’t be until 2011. House officials originally planned to put its SOD online by Aug. 31, but Beard delayed the rollout so officials could train and prepare Hill staffers, according to Ventura. Until now, he said, only financial staffers had to know the book’s jargon; once the books are online, offices may get more calls from constituents and reporters.

“Now, the constituent relations folks may get calls, the press secretaries may get calls,” Ventura said. “We had classes in the [House] Learning Center just telling people how to even read the book.”

That level of difficulty is a central complaint of transparency proponents, who argue that putting a copy of the books online is not enough. Jock Friedly, whose Web site LegiStorm.com offers staffers’ salary information in a searchable online format, said officials should assign unique numbers to each employee to make identification clearer. Right now, there’s no foolproof way to determine whether a “John Smith” who was an intern four years ago is the same “John Smith” who now works in another Member’s office. Instead, Friedly and his staff make educated guesses.

Still, he said the searchable PDFs will probably help him get salary information online more quickly. Employees, he said, now have to “rip apart” the physical books, scan them and send them off to a data entry contractor.

With the online PDFs, LegiStorm may be able to “semi-automate” the process, he said. That may save enough time to allow the company to start putting other expenses — such as official supplies and travel — on its Web site.

“This is a big step forward for the House, but it obviously is not nearly as helpful as it could be,” he said. “The most helpful way to provide the data would be to provide it in a more structured format like XML.”

Sepp agreed, calling the PDFs “nothing more than a snapshot of a document that you can try to look through with a keyword.” “The disclosure process is now somewhere between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance,” he said. “There’s some progress, but it’s still limited.”

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