Wednesday, July 1, 2009
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Only Pocket Change for Our Lawmakers?
By TED RUHIG
Under a “second homes allowance,” which enables every member of Parliament to claim the costs of commuting to London, lawmakers entered claims for charges for the clearing of a moat, a shipment of horse manure for a garden, the maintenance of sprawling woodlands and the installation of a miniature “duck house” in a country house pond.
The more mundane needs of the members of two of Britain’s political parties, Laborites and Liberal Democrats, were met by claims for nonexistent mortgages, dry rot repairs at the house of a Labor MP’s business partner and a Liberal Democrat’s trouser press. Before he resigned over the scandal, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, claimed thousands of pounds for a chauffeur-driven car that drove him about his Glasgow constituency, one of Britain’s poorest. He is the first Speaker of the House of Commons to resign because of a scandal in 300 years.
Then there is the expense scandal in Italy. News reports are describing how 72-year-old Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi used state aircraft to fly guests to his luxurious seafront villa on the Mediterranean Isle of Sardinia. Prosecutors in Rome have opened an investigation after photos surfaced showing friends, entertainers and starlets arriving for the parties. Some of the friends were young girls, including an 18-year-old model who has been described as being in a “spicy relationship” with the Prime Minister.
How about on our side of the Atlantic? In some ways, we’ve seen similar scandals here in the United States. In the early 1990s, there were two concurrent scandals related to the House Bank and the House Post Office. The House banking scandal involved lawmakers — practically every single one of them — kiting checks and going months with huge overdrafts on their accounts.
The House Post Office scandal saw lawmakers purchasing stamps with their Member’s Representational Allowance and then trading them back to the Post Office for cash.
The House banking scandal led to the conviction of four former lawmakers and a short scolding of 22 lawmakers by the House Ethics Committee. The House Post Office scandal led to the conviction of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski for laundering money through stamps, hiring “ghost” employees and using the postal funds for personal uses.
In light of the current controversy in Britain, The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed thousands of pages of reimbursement requests for congressional allowances for 2008 expenses. The result, according to a fiscal accountability website: While most of the expenditures went to areas such as staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing, the Journal came across a number of “eye-catching” expenditures: Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings spent $24,730 in taxpayer money last year to lease a 2008 luxury Lexus hybrid sedan. Ohio Rep. Michael Turner expensed a $1,435 digital camera. Eni Faleomavaega, the House delegate from American Samoa, bought two 46-inch Sony TVs. Rep. Howard Berman expensed $84,000 worth of personalized calendars, printed by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, for his constituents.
While apparently all legal, expenditures such as these raise a few eyebrows, especially at a time when taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet. In light of the current push for greater accountability in government finance, now would be the perfect time to take another look at the practice of expense allowances, and if not reformed in terms of amounts granted and allowable expenditures, at a minimum reimbursement requests need to be made available in a searchable online database available to the public.
Nancy Pelosi has agreed to put all House members’ quarterly expenses online.
“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,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which recently stepped up the pressure on Congress following the Wall Street Journal report.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office said it was studying whether senators’ expense records should also be available online. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said he would soon introduce a bill requiring Internet publishing of members’ expense data.
U.S. Congress members appear to be less brazen than their British counterparts about their spending. Still, inquiring minds want to know. In Washington, congressional expense records are published by the Government Printing Office, the agency that also puts innumerable other federal reports on its official website. Pelosi recognized that it wasn’t much trouble for the printing office to also electronically publish House spending records.Now the Senate needs to reach the same conclusion
— Capitol News Service