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House Spending Review: Do Members Need Accounting Lessons?

If rules change after Schock, how will members get up to speed?  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When Rep. Scott Rigell came to Congress in 2011, he wore two phones on his hip. One was government-issued for official use; the other was a personal phone.  

The official handbook for House members lists bills for telecommunications devices and services as one of 15 advance payments that can be cut from the more than $1 million each member is allotted to run Capitol Hill and district offices. But additional rules govern where, when and how those cellphones and tablets can be used, depending on the purpose and who pays. The Virginia Republican's election to the House was the former auto dealer’s first political position, other than a four-year stint on a state motor-vehicle dealer board. And he was determined to abide by the laws governing official resources — a set of rules and procedures under scrutiny in the wake of Illinois Republican Aaron Schock's resignation .  

A congressional colleague, spotting the two-phone arrangement, eventually told him, “Oh, Scott, I don’t do any of that,” Rigell said in a recent interview. “I just pay for the personal only, and I’m able to make my personal calls and my campaign calls and everything else,” the friend explained.  

“We checked into that and found that was all right to do, so I actually go down that path," Rigell said. "I just pay for it, actually personally, not even through the campaign.”  

Members still need to be mindful of their telecom usage, though.  

In August 2014, the House Ethics Committee offered some guidance, stating in a memo, "You may wish to designate a regular time outside of official time when you will not be in an official building to check campaign email and voice mail."  

And it's not simply use of electronic devices members need to be cognizant of.  

Circumstances surrounding Schock's downfall led the House Administration Committee to launch a review  of the rules and procedures governing how members seek reimbursement for official expenses incurred while representing their districts. The day-to-day responsibility for managing the account in accordance with those rules lies with the member. It often involves navigating the blurry lines between holding office and campaigning for one. Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., have met with key staff for House Chief Administrative Officer Ed Cassidy, including employees who work in the Office of Financial Counseling. They process, on average, more than 4,000 expenses each week.  

The panel also interviewed chiefs of staff and financial administrators who prepare vouchers and receipts for purchases in each member’s office. According to a letter Lofgren sent to her colleagues, obtained by Roll Call, they are seeking feedback on the level of training employees have available from the House Ethics Committee staff and the support provided by administrative staff.  

But Rigell and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., see one glaring problem with that approach: The panel's review does not appear to address the lack of annual ethics training for House members, effectively the CEOs of each office.  

"If you had 535 executives of a company, a larger, privately held company, you wouldn’t expect to find as high of a percentage as we’ve experienced in Congress having real ethics difficulty," Rigell said, pointing to members such as Schock and others who have had "bumpier rides," but survived.  

"If you look at the world’s best-run companies, for profits and nonprofits, they will have four hours of mandatory ethics training, maybe two hours, and they don’t make any apology about it," he added.  

Since last Congress, the bipartisan pair has been pushing for a measure that would mandate members of the House undergo the same hourlong annual ethics training that senators and Hill staffers must complete. It has 44 co-sponsors — 26 co-sponsors were added the day Schock announced his exit. But it appears to be a stretch  for House leadership to push for mandatory training.  

"This is one of many examples where changes in policies or changes in procedures would be an important occasion to provide ethics training to folks, to let them know about this change in procedures," Cicilline said.  

A change adopted in January required the 58 members of the 114th Congress’ freshman class to undergo the same one-hour ethics training that is required for new House staff. But they are only trained once — "de minimus," Rigell said — not on an annual basis, as his bill would require.  

The House embarked on an effort to overhaul its administrative operations in December 1994, under the direction of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his transition team. Under that system, all 435 member offices, 20 standing committees and various leadership offices became a collection of independent business units with individual budgets and staff. In 1996, expense accounts were consolidated into one lump sum, known as the Members' Representational Allowance.  

Working for Georgia Republican John Linder at the time the new system took effect, Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., agreed House staff took on more responsibility for proper accounting. Woodall, who rose to chief of staff before campaigning for Congress in 2010, praised the system for its clarity.  

"I can't think of a special burden it puts on members because, you know, if you're the chief of staff or if you're the office manager, there's no reason to be worried about anything," Woodall said. "If it looks gray to you, you call somebody [and] they'll put it in black or white, and you just move on."

It became harder to see how exactly members were spending that money after July 2009, when the House began posting its spending books online. For example, airline ticket purchases generally reported the name of the traveler and the destination. But after the change, the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer scrubbed the data to remove these details.

Davis, who helped manage office expenses for 16 years as an aide to Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said it may be better for the transparency of the entire financial process to go back to earlier procedures.  

"The issue that came up in our initial meetings with fellow members and with chiefs of staff was inconsistent advice from the House Administration Committee not being in conjunction with the Ethics Committee advice," Davis told CQ Roll Call, explaining that lawmakers who lead both panels were part of the review.  

"Hopefully we’ll be able to get a process in place so that there's a consistent message," he said. Joint "pink sheets," generally the term for guidance memos from the Ethics Committee, could be in the works. Davis was noncommittal when asked if mandatory ethics training is on the table.  

Before Congress, Rigell built his businessman reputation as the owner of Freedom Automotive, operating Ford and Volvo dealerships in Virginia's 2nd District. For new employee orientation and annual training at his company, Rigell would have his team imagine a visit from Ford's manufacturer warranty audit team, or another oversight body.  

"If they all coincidentally showed up in the showroom one day and started taking employees off to different corners and asking them how they run our business, I said, 'I don't want my heart rate to go up one beat per minute, because I know that to the best of our ability we are in full compliance.'"  

Rigell says that is how he tries to run his congressional office.  

"I think the track record of Congress speaks for itself," he said. "I think it’s self-evident that we need annual training. That's how I see it."  

Related: Who Polices How Members Spend Office Budgets? Bipartisan Pair Volunteers to Get Schooled on House Ethics Could Aaron Schock Really End Up in Jail? House Mandates 1 Hour of Ethics Training for Freshman Class Schock Fallout: Rules Subject to Interpretation See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.