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, Pelosis office reported paying airfare for the Speakers 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 Speakers 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, Pelosis 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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.