It should go without saying that at Sunlight, we believe that if Congress is required to make a document or report public, it can only satisfy that mandate by putting the information online in a searchable format. That’s why we 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. Only then will citizens have access to a full and detailed accounting of how Members spend the taxpayer funds that they receive to run their offices.
These behemoth reports, which weigh in at around four pounds, are published quarterly by the House and semi-annually by the Senate. They are available, “while supplies last,” at the House and Senate document rooms and they can be “viewed” at Federal Depository Libraries. But they are virtually inaccessible to a citizen wondering what her representative pays members of his staff or whether the congressman is purchasing flat screen TVs, magazine subscriptions or potted plants for the office. At a time when most American families and businesses are tightening their belts, citizens should be able to assess for themselves whether their representatives in Congress are spending taxpayer funds wisely.
Failing to make disbursement reports available online gives them an air of secrecy that is largely unwarranted given the uncontroversial content of the reports. As Sunlight advocates in our Transparency in Government Act, a transparent 111th Congress will open up its books for review by the public, and will find that this painless endeavor helps to begin to restore the public’s trust in the accountability of the institution.