The US House is expected today to release the quarterly Statement of Disbursements online for the first time.
Sunlight has long called for electronic disclosure of the accounts of Members and other offices within the House, and last June Speaker Pelosi announced this new policy. The US Senate quickly followed, announcing a new policy set to take effect in 2011.
We expect today to be the first time the public will be able to see how their representatives spend their office budgets online, adding a new layer of accountability and trust to the process of representation. As Paul Blumenthal has detailed before, past decades have seen scandal around Members’ expenditures, and the House of Commons in the United Kingdom was recently rocked by a similar scandal, when the public learned how Members of Parliament were spending official funds.
Today’s release will mark a proactive stance from the US House, voluntarily creating more effective disclosure, and responding to new expectations that information be available online for it to be truly public. It will also be just a first step. Since the disclosure will likely take the form of a big PDF, we’re going to be hard at work making the information more accessible and meaningful, and we’ll have updates here and on future posts explaining what we’re up to.
We’ll also be pushing, in the medium term, for this disclosure system to be strengthened. Eventually, this information will be posted in a structured format, in real time, for the public to process and examine online. Moving from huge books examined by very few people to PDFs posted publicly once a quarter is an enormous step forward. Moving from those files to a real-time feed of structured data will be a similarly huge step.
Update: The House will publish the expenditures here:
…and the site says they’ll go live around 1 PM.
Update 2: The site is up, and you can download the PDFs here:
We’ll be mirroring a copy soon.
Update 3: Eric Mill on the Sunlight Labs blog has some hosted PDFs, and discusses what we’ll be working on…
Update 4: Looks like CongressDaily is trying to make this into something it’s not. Their brief coverage (sub only) says this:
The reports posted today reflect activity from July through September. Pelosi made the decision to post the reports after published stories this summer raised questions about how some House members are using their office allowances, which cannot be used for personal benefit. While most spending by lawmakers goes to staff salaries and office expenses, the reports documented how some has gone toward items such as luxury cars and high-end electronics.
The implication is clearly that this is the result of some scandal. The Wall Street Journal coverage they’re presumably referring to doesn’t make that case at all:
A spokesman for the speaker said her action wasn’t prompted by the articles, which found mostly routine spending on staff salaries, travel and office rent, as well as supplies, printing and mailing. The 2008 reports also showed taxpayer money spent on luxury car leases, big-screen TVs, pricey laptops known as “Toughbooks” and fresh-cut flower arrangements.
House and Senate lawmakers receive annual allowances of $1.3 million to $4.5 million to run their offices. All the expenditures reviewed by the Journal were legal, and the disclosures complied with congressional rules.
Sometimes the sexiest answer isn’t the right one.
Update 5: RollCall has an interesting quote from a spokesman for the CAO:
Jeff Ventura, spokesman for House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, said the House doesn’t have any plans to put the information into a more accessible and searchable form. But if there’s a “huge demand” in the future, he said, the chamber may reconsider.
“We’d be disrupting a process that currently exists,” he said, “and we’re very hesitant to mess with that.”
It’ll be interesting to see whether that “huge demand” will come to exist. In the coming weeks, we could see complete silence or scandals, apathy or impassioned debate over House expenditures. I wonder if local media outlets will look into their own Members’ expense records, now that they’re more easily accessible?