New Database Reveals Cost to Run the House

Posted June 9, 2010 at 5:00pm

Here’s what it costs to run the House of Representatives for a year: $30 million for Members and staff to travel around the country, $48 million for outside consultants, $26 million to rent district offices, $600,000 for stenographers, $4 million for office temps, $25 million for franked mail, $400,000 for bottled water and $3 million for buffet lunches, doughnuts and pizza.

These numbers are extrapolations based on a new database of Congressional spending for the last half of 2009 compiled by the Sunlight Foundation in cooperation with Roll Call.

Every three months, the House prints a three-volume report on its expenditures, detailing salaries of all Congressional staff, expenses incurred by each office and vendors paid by the House for everything from laundry service to technology support contracts.

Last fall, the House posted these reports online for the first time, but the files were posted as images of the printed books and were nearly impossible to manipulate.

The database built by the Sunlight Foundation puts this data into a single, sortable, searchable spreadsheet, allowing users to extract much more information about where the House has spent its money. The first run of the data includes the third and fourth quarters of last year. The House released its report for the first three months of 2010 just before Memorial Day, and the foundation plans to add that information to its database as soon as it can be scrubbed.

The data already assembled paint an interesting picture of where the Congressional piggybank goes.

Salaries and benefits are obviously the largest expense for a business such as the House that makes no widgets, but it is clear that Members put a premium on communicating with their constituents.

According to the Sunlight data, in the last half of last year, Members spent a little over $14 million on domestic travel. This total included flights to and from the district for Members and staff, lodging and meals on the road, and parking fees and mileage reimbursement for staff driving their own cars.

Prior to July 2009, when an office purchased an airline ticket, the name of the traveler and the destination was generally reported in the quarterly disclosure reports. But when the House began posting the books online, the Chief Administrative Officer scrubbed the data to remove these details, so it is no longer clear who traveled where.

Roll Call reported earlier this year that Congress spent about $15 million in 2009 on foreign travel and domestic Congressional delegations, but that money comes from a separate account and is not included in these reports.

The House spent $12.5 million on franked mail in the last half of the year and hundreds of thousands of dollars on other mail services, including FedEx and UPS.

According to the Sunlight data, the top vendor doing business with the House in the last six months of 2009 was CDW-Government, a technology supply company. In prior years, many of the purchases from CDW and other vendors were detailed in the expense reports down to the model number of the equipment, but the CAO has also eliminated this detail in the new reporting system, so there is no way to know exactly what the House bought with the $8.1 million that it paid CDW in the last half of 2009.

The second-highest-paid vendor was postage giant Pitney Bowes, earning $7.7 million from the House from July to December of 2009. According to company spokesman Matt Broder, part of that cost is the post-9/11 collection and screening of incoming mail for terror threats. “We handle all the off-site secure mail processing for the House of Representatives,” Broder said.

The other major vendors are primarily information technology and telecommunications companies, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Cisco Systems.

But some of the major expenses of the House are less tied to reaching out to others and more tied to care and comfort of employees. For example, one of the major benefits offered by to staff is partial repayment of outstanding student loans. In the last half of 2009, the House made a little over $4 million in student loan payments for staff.

Members spent almost $1.4 million on food and beverages in the six-month period, in about 6,400 separate transactions, many of which appear to be lunch events or doughnuts and coffee for meetings. The House budget also guzzled just under $200,000 worth of bottled water in thousands of transactions worth as little as $2.

And, this being Washington, D.C., the House spent heavily on consultants. According to the Sunlight data, the House paid $2.8 million to individuals or small firms for consulting services and millions more in “non-technology” service contracts to large consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton ($832,740) and BearingPoint ($559,584).

The Senate publishes similar expenditure reports every six months, but the books are not available electronically.

Rachael Bade and Jeremy White contributed to this report.