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Congressional Statements of Expenditures, the MP Expense Scandal, and the Case for Transparency

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What would happen here in the States if congressmen were revealed to have used their office allowances (Member's Representational Allowance) on XXX-rated tapes, digging a moat around their McMansion, or paying down a mortgage that had already been paid off? It wouldn't be too different from how the British are reacting right now. Members of Parliament (MPs) have been discovered using their personal allowances on the above mentioned items and more (in Britain, however, they do not have McMansions, they actually have castles) and the people are wicked angry. The scandal has already claimed the Speaker of the House of Commons and almost a dozen MPs, who have promised not to run for office again.

The Wikipedia page on the MP expense scandal provides a fairly detailed primer to introduce yourself to the peculiar purchasing peccadillos of Members of Parliament. In short, this all began when an intrepid indepedent journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the expense account information. Parliament refused and filed numerous appeals, losing each time. Eventually, Parliament stated that they would release the expense information to the full public in July of 2009, but they would redact certain information -- that information turned out to be the juiciest stuff. Before that month could come (we are still in May), the Daily Telegraph obtained a full, unredacted list of MP expenses and began running stories exposing the various outrages that MPs expensed on the government dime. And it has all tumbled out of control from there.

In some ways, we've seen similar scandals here in the United States. In the early 1990s, there were two concurrent scandals related to the House Bank and the House Post Office. The House banking scandal involved lawmakers -- practically every single one of them -- kiting checks and going months with huge overdrafts on their accounts. The House Post Office scandal saw lawmakers purchasing stamps with their Member's Representational Allowance (MRA) and then trading them back to the Post Office for cash. The House banking scandal led to the conviction of four former lawmakers and a short scolding of 22 lawmakers by the House Ethics Committee. The House Post Office scandal led to the conviction of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, one of the last of the congressional bulls, for laundering money through stamps, hiring "ghost" employees, and using MRA funds for personal uses.

Rostenkowski may be the most famous of House lawmakers to be taken down, like the MP expense scandal, by misuse of office funds, but he is certainly not the only one. In the 1970s, Rep. Wayne Hays, chairman of the House Adminsitration Committee, was felled after it was revealed that he kept his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, on his congressional payroll as a secretary despite, in her own words, that, "I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the phone!" During the Hays scandal coverage, a similar situation was uncovered with Rep. John Young .

Whether it is the MP scandal, Rostenkowski, or Hays, it is obvious the one thing that abets these kinds of abuses is a serious lack of transparency. Had all of these expense funds and allowances been accessible to the public any person would reason that they could not easily get away with abuse or misuse of the funds. Preempting actions by making the item of potential abuse transparent prevents the actions from being made.

Despite this obvious case for transparency in office funds, congressional "Statements of Expenditures" (how the MRA is spent by each individual office) are still no where to be found on the Internet. They are printed up in a series of books (really, a lot of books) and never placed near a computer, scanner, or anything that would allow you to see them, save a trip to the basement of the Longworth House Office Building.

Last year, Sunlight's Lisa Rosenberg endorsed the idea of online disclosure for the "Statements of Expenditures" writing, "[W]e would like to see the “Statements of Expenditures” required by law to be made public by the House and Senate to be put online by each of the legislative bodies. ... Failing to make disbursement reports available online gives them an air of secrecy that is largely unwarranted given the uncontroversial content of the reports."