Christmas in September

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This week Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided make House office expenses more transparent by putting them on the internet for people to see. One of our summer interns Lindsay Young wanted to share her thoughts on this based on her experience from interning on Capitol Hill . – Nisha Thompson

I have a bit of experience on Capitol Hill as a lowly intern in both the House and Senate. On many occasions, I visited the supply stores in the catacombs of the Capitol buying mundane office necessities. I would be surprised if the release of Congressional financial disclosures on the internet reveal extravagant spending on chandeliers or moat maintenance. Being on the “front lines” of office expenditures, I would argue that the most interesting question is not, “What does Congress purchase?” (Though that question may uncover an interesting bronze statuette fetish.) The true question is, “When are these purchases made?” If anyone looks into when spending takes place, I would wager they will discover a frenzy of spending in September.

Every year on the hill, staff make their wish list of staplers and post-its for the last of the fiscal year. I have gone through offices person by person making a “last call” on stationary. Offices start hording administrative goodies because any money in their allowance that is not used by October disappears.

The true impact of September spending is felt in agencies that depend on Congress to appropriate their budgets. For Government Agencies and programs, not spending all appropriated money is dangerous. Under-spending threatens future budgets and there is no way to save beyond the fiscal year. Programs that run under budget are in a poor position to ask for more money in the next budget cycle. To avoid the fiscal punishment, agencies stock up on extra goods every September. You may guess that this system is not conducive to frugality.

It will be interesting to see if the spending reports are something juicier than my anecdotal observations but it will take time to sift through the documents. Ensuring that records are released in a searchable format is key, or else the reporting will be almost as inaccessible as Congressional Earmark Disclosures. Releasing these reports promotes transparency in government budget priorities. Then, the people can decide if it is a good strategy to punish thrift and reward gluttony.

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  • “…[I]t will take time to sift through the documents…” Aye, there’s the rub. “Transparency,” the latest big thing, can easily turn into a transparency tsunami, and is threatening to do so already (see Data.gov, etc.). Sunlight has its work cut out for it turning data into information. Happily, that seems to be its principal calling, and good luck with it.