Speaker Pelosi Announces New Expense Disclosure Policy

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Speaker Pelosi has just announced a new level of disclosure for official expenditures from the offices of House Representatives, as recently posted to her blog.

This move will create unprecedented transparency and accountability for Member offices, where federal funds are spent to support official legislative duties.

The post cites a letter sent from the Speaker to the Chief Administrative Officer:

Dear Mr. Beard:

I am directing that the Chief Administrative Officer’s office begin to publish the quarterly Statement of Disbursements for the House of Representatives in an online format at the earliest date. The House is making every effort to operate in a transparent manner and online publication of these reports will expand accountability to taxpayers and the press.

Member’s expenses are currently collected and published as bound paper volumes called the “Statements of Expenditures.” However, Congress has not (up to now) made this public information available in an online format.

The Sunlight Foundation called for online disclosure of the expense records in December 2008 and again last Wednesday:

(5/27/09)Despite [the] obvious case for transparency in office funds, congressional “Statements of Expenditures” (how the [Member’s Representational Allowance] 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. … (12/5/08)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. … 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. …

By instructing the House administrators to place the expenditures online, Speaker Pelosi is opening Members’ expenditures to unprecedented public scrutiny.

The move follows a recent scandal in the UK (reviewed in depth here by Paul Blumenthal), where MPs currently face public humiliation for expensing personal items on the public dime, and where the Speaker has been forced to step down.

Speaker Pelosi’s move should be interpreted as a recognition that public information — even potentially embarrasing information about how Members spend public funds — should be truly accessible to the general public, which means online.

An additional important point: Speaker Pelosi adds that access to the document should be free of charge:

Consistent with my goal to increase transparency and ensure greater accountability to the public, please take all steps necessary to ensure that the quarterly Statement of Disbursements be made available online free of charge to the public and on a suitable House website.

For more background on Members’ budgets and expense statements, see this page from the Committee on House Administration. The Wall Street Journal also recently completed a review of Members’ expenditures.

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  • Great news.

    It’s not clear what format the information will take, but ideally it won’t just be a PDF or an HTML page. The data would be especially useful if it were published in a structured format (even a spreadsheet would do). Then you’d see a number of tools springing up to analyze the data–and that’s how we get to maximum transparency.