Congress is on a cost-cutting spree, looking for any place to trim the federal budget, but one line item appears safe: the $235,000 allocated each year for expense accounts for top leaders of each chamber.
Unlike other official accounts, these expense accounts go largely unitemized, so there is no telling how the money is spent. For the past four years, then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) received $833 payments each month to cover expenses.
The money has been in annual spending bills for years, and a Senate aide explained in an e-mail: “The ‘expense allowance’ funds are for additional expenses of the leadership offices besides typical office expenses. For example, they are typically expenses associated with policy luncheons, breakfast meetings, coffees, and other items related to hosting official guests in their capacity of leadership.” Most Members do not spend all of the funds allocated.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the money “is used in appropriate ways for expenses related to his official duties.”
Members of Congress have official accounts that pay for salaries and other expenses of running their offices, and leaders receive bigger budgets to cover their added responsibilities. The 2010 spending bill set aside $5.2 million for salaries and employees for each of the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders and $3.3 million for each of the Whips. In the House, the bill provided $5 million for the Speaker, $2.5 million for the Majority Leader and $4.6 million for the Minority Leader.
But the leadership expense accounts are designated separately.
The appropriations bill for 2010, as in prior years, set aside $180,000 for these expenses in the Senate, including $40,000 each for the Majority Leader and Minority Leader and $40,000 for the President Pro Tem, with lesser amounts for the Whips, Policy Committee chairmen and the vice president. These amounts are in addition to the regular office budget.
The expense amounts have grown significantly in the Senate over the years. The fiscal 1997 legislative branch appropriations bill set aside a total of $56,000 for Senate leadership expenses, allocating the Majority and Minority Leaders only $10,000 each.
By contrast, the House has distributed the same $55,000 in official expenses since the 1997 bill: $25,000 to the Speaker, $10,000 each for the Minority and Majority Leaders, and $5,000 each for the Whips. These amounts are included in the total budget for each office.
The regular reports from each chamber that track the expenses of Members of Congress offer little detail on what this extra expense money is used for.
Boehner and Hoyer appear to be the only ones who have taken the expense money in direct payments in recent years. Both of their offices list monthly payments to the boss for $833 to cover “official expenses for leader.”
In 2010, Pelosi’s office appears to have spent the money on meals and events. The quarterly disbursement books also indicate that she spent $19,000 from this account on catering just after the 2010 elections, but her office said this is an error; she spent no money from the Speaker expense account after the fiscal year ended in September.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who served as Minority Whip in the 111th Congress, doesn’t use the account at all, and neither does Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who served as Majority Whip in the last Congress, their offices said.
The Senate’s reporting system makes the spending difficult to track. For example, by March 31, 2010, Reid had spent almost $35,000 of the $40,000 available to him for fiscal 2010. The only detail provided is an indication that $32,576 was spent on “supplies and materials, $1,725 was reimbursed to Reid for the purchase of “furniture and fixtures” and another $156 was spent on “management and professional support services.”
Over the same six-month period, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to have spent about $15,000 on “supplies and materials.” He spent a similar amount in the second half of the fiscal year.
Sources in the House said that while the continuing resolution for the rest of fiscal 2011 passed by Republicans provides overall cuts to Congressional offices, the expense accounts remain untouched.