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Senate Finally Publishes Its Spending Online, But Could Do Much Better

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At long last, the U.S. Senate has begun online publication of how it spends money on itself --  barely meeting the statutory deadline. The House of Representatives began publishing its statement of disbursements online in November 2009 per then-Speaker Pelosi's directive; the Senate belatedly followed suit after Senator Tom Coburn's amendment to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act in July 2009 finally kicked in, two years later.

While these disbursement statements have been published by the House and Senate for nearly 200 years, online publication only came about through a combination of the Sunlight Foundation's request and a huge scandal in the UK over members of parliament spending taxpayer money on building moats, fixing up their homes, and other illegal purposes. The reports allow reporters, watchdogs, and the general public to see how money is spent on everything from trips to staff salaries to office equipment to perks. How did the Senate do in reporting this information?

The Senate has inaccurately labeled its link to the report as for "October 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011," but rest assured, if you click the link, the linked report covers April 1, 2011 to September 30, 2011. The report itself is unfinished, omitting some Senate employees, a failing the report acknowledges. These omissions make a full evaluation difficult at this time. (There's no indication of how long we'll have to wait, either.)  In addition, the House published a detailed online guide http://disbursements.house.gov/ to its expenditure report; the Senate has not.

In short, the online version of the Senate's expenditure report looks (at first glance) very much like the print version. While deeper digging is required, as far as we can tell, the Senate has not redacted or condensed any data beyond what they already do in the print publication; the House ran into trouble when its online version resulted in a loss of data. Not making things worse, however, doesn't mean that the effort is a full success.

We had expected that the very lengthy wait would have meant that the Senate would have released the information in a database, and not only in a huge (12 MB) searchable PDF. For the public -- or members of the Senate -- to be able to evaluate the contents of the report, they're going to have to scrape all of the data from the PDF and put it into a database. It took considerable effort and expense for Sunlight to scrape the House expenditure reports. A preliminary technology assessment by one of my colleagues indicates that it's going to as hard, if not harder, to do the same for the Senate's report.

There's also been a failure to think about how online publication is different from print. There aren't the same kind of space limitations online that exist otherwise. To the extent the Senate tracks how it spends money, it could make all (or nearly all) of that information available online -- not just the condensed versions it already publishes. While phrases in the document like "certified purchased equipment" and "fees and other charges" give some hint about what they refer to, we can really do much better than this. There are also a number of minor errors -- from misspelling Mitch McConnell's last name on page C-1 to using periods instead of commas to separate first and last names.

In this era of tight budgets, Senators should demand that the Senate's statement of disbursements be complete, accurate, timely, and in an easy-to-use online database. We'll keep digging into this.