Editorial: Opaque

Posted December 8, 2009 at 3:56pm

With fanfare and self-congratulation, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced last week that House Members’ office expense reports are now posted online. Problem is, the move enhances opaqueness, not transparency.

This much is true and theoretically good: For the first time, citizens will be able to download and peruse the 3,400 pages of the quarterly “Statement of Disbursements of the House— detailing how Members spent their taxpayer-funded office accounts.

Announcing the move, Pelosi bragged that, “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: “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.—

Unfortunately, the now-online reports provide a good deal less than “a full accounting— of Members’ spending — in fact, far less information than the old paper “beige book— that nosy journalists, watchdogs and citizens had to page through by hand.

As Roll Call reported Dec. 2, the last round of printed reports, covering April through June, contained hundreds of references to computers, laptops, televisions, cameras and printers. The new reports refer only to “comp hardware— or “equipment purchase.—

Similarly, the old books itemized hundreds of trips taken by Members and staff, detailing the destination, the traveler and the duration of the trip.

In Pelosi’s own case, for instance, the April through June report itemized the airfare for the Speaker’s special assistant to travel 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 online version eliminates all details of who traveled where. The July through September report lists little more than $10,000 for “commercial transportation— by the Speaker’s office.

In other cases, the new report lists net amounts of rent paid for district offices but does not reveal — as the old ones did — where the offices are and how much rent is paid for each.

The old system was less than perfect. As Roll Call reported in January, in the process of recording information from vouchers submitted to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, staffers often eliminated details or made errors.

But the supposedly more transparent reports systematically hide details about expenditures. Members’ offices still supply vouchers to the CAO, but they are keyed into the reporting system only under broad categories — supposedly in the interests of standardization and efficiency.

We suspect the true motive — as stated by a leadership staffer — was to prevent reporters (and probably political opponents) from picking out individual expenditures to embarrass Members.

We can’t think of a Member brought down by reporting on the purchase of a flat-screen TV. But where a Member or staffer traveled on a particular day or how much rent was paid for district office space might prove to be of historical or political importance.

There’s a solution — a really transparent solution — to be had here: Post the actual office vouchers online. They are now secret.

We challenge the Speaker to live up to her boasts.