Who Polices How Members Spend Office Budgets?
With the Office of Congressional Ethics reportedly investigating Rep. Aaron Schock over his spending of taxpayer and campaign money, the Illinois Republican’s accounting will be subject to a fresh round of scrutiny, this time from a quasi-independent House agency.
Revelations about Schock’s exorbitant receipts have surfaced on nearly a daily basis in the six weeks since a Washington Post Style reporter got a peek inside his “Downton Abbey”- themed office as journalists sift through public records of office expenses Schock reported to the House. The saga begs the question: Who makes the call on whether Congress will reimburse lawmakers’ expenses?
The initial determination is made by the House Administration Committee, a panel established in 1947 as part of a larger effort to modernize internal management and operations of the chamber. Schock, now in his fourth term, holds one of nine seats on the committee, which divvies up the annual appropriations each lawmaker receives and sets rules over how the money may be used.
In fiscal 2014, the amount House members received averaged $1.255 million per office, according to the Congressional Research Service. Under House Rule X, the committee has jurisdiction over appropriations from accounts for “allowance and expenses of Members,” as well as jurisdiction over “auditing and settling of all accounts.” But the members’ handbook published by the committee makes clear the day-to-day responsibility for managing the account lies with the member.
“When an expense is incurred, the Member must determine the primary purpose for the expenditure,” the handbook states. “Is the primary purpose for the expenditure official and representational? Or is it primarily related to personal, campaign-related political party, campaign or committee activities? Only expenses the primary purpose of which are official and representational and which are incurred in accordance with the Handbook are reimbursable.”
If members overspend, they pay it back out of their own pockets. The House has repeatedly maintained that members know their own offices best, mostly allowing all 435 offices to act as independent entities.
Changes implemented in the the 104th Congress gave members more leeway by removing the separate allowances within the representational allowance, known as MRA, for clerk hire, official expenses and official mail.
In the handbook, the committee recommends each member establish an annual MRA budget. To assist in this process, the Office of Finance, an entity of the House chief administrative officer, sends each member monthly statements showing year-to-date expenditures and obligated amounts. Those expenditures are compiled and published for the public as the Quarterly Statement of Disbursements.
The Office of Finance, operating on a $10.4 million budget in fiscal 2015, is not tasked with policing the transactions, such as the $10,053 charge innocuously labeled “travel subsistence” Schock’s office logged for a September trip. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that at least 10 staffers accompanied the congressman to New York on the taxpayer dime for a weekend that included almost no government work.
Instead, members’ offices are tasked with following the rules and regulations and instructed to contact the House Ethics Committee for advice. The ethics committee can conduct investigations of improper use of official resources.
When OCE completes its alleged investigation of Schock, it may recommend the committee do just that. The secretive committee is still sitting on a 2012 referral from OCE, stemming from allegations Schock may have improperly solicited campaign contributions.
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