Once again The Wall Street Journal is taking to task a spendthrift U.S. Congress that has members dipping deeply into expense accounts to lease luxury cars, purchase state of the art digital cameras or stock up on pricy new flat screen TVs.
This latest report, gleaned from the careful examination of thousands of pieces of accounting paper by the Journal that document “official and representational expenses” for 2008, showed most lawmaker spending gushed predictably through staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing.
But, indicated the Journal, the records - which curiously are not available on the Internet or digitally in this celebrated brave new world of transparency in government - also revealed the purchasing of high-end laptops and even a cell-phone holder for the fashion-conscious.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., for example, expensed $84,000 worth of personalized calendars, printed by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, for his constituents.
Use It or Lose It
The records showed that lawmakers spent heavily in the final months of the year to draw down allowances before the end of the fourth quarter when, according to the rules, unexpended funds must march back into the U.S. Treasury.
House members get a government expense allowance of $1.3 million to $1.9 million a year. Senators get $2.9 million to $4.5 million.
Part of that fourth quarter spending frenzy is to deal out bonuses to staffers.
According to the current report and the earlier April 1 report on the subject in the Wall Street Journal, the average House aide earned 17 percent more in the fourth quarter of 2008, when Hill bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to data compiled by LegiStorm.
That was the biggest upward blip in the eight years the LegiStorm service has recorded payroll information.
Members of Congress are free to pay their staffers whatever they want, up to an annual ceiling, so there’s nothing unlawful about year-end bonuses – “even year-end, post-election, before-the-other-party-gets-in bonuses,” according to a report by CNN.
In 2008, some 200 House lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- awarded bonuses totaling $9.1 million to more than 2,000 staff members, according to the Journal report.
According to the WSJ, House offices normally return a total of about $1 million or $2 million a year - or less that 0.5 percent of the overall office expenses budget. In 2006, a particularly miserly year, lawmakers returned only $36,549.
Some lawmakers, however, are not apparently compelled to spend every dime in the coffers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif., had about $57,000 remaining in her budget at the end of 2008. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R- Ohio, had $228,000.
But their leadership-by-example hasn’t yet turned the tide of a powerful tradition of spending until the bank runs dry.
A Guarded Accounting System
According to the WSJ, House lawmakers submit receipts to the chief administrative officer, who publishes a statement each quarter that consumes more than 3,000 pages. Each member’s expense tally takes up about six pages and features a brief description of each expense, its amount and the date incurred.
Meanwhile, reported the WSJ, the Senate issues two volumes every six months, with descriptions that are less detailed than those revealed by the House.
“This information is not widely available to the public,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “This is stuff that every constituent should be able to know.”
The WSJ in its culling of the records found that about 100 lawmakers lease cars using their official allowances. The majority are American-made, featuring Ford Escapes and Chevy Tahoes.
Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana paid $20,000 for a 2009 lease on a Toyota Highlander, a hybrid SUV. Alexander told the Journal that the vehicle was for his state director’s official business.
“We have a large district, the largest in Louisiana,” he said. “We didn’t want to lease a bicycle for him to ride on.”
Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who resigned from his Hose seat in January to step in as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, listed a $33,000 printing expense in the fourth quarter. An aide explained to the Journal it was for an official district-wide mailing.
In other examples of expenditures disclosed by the Journal investigators:Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, spent $2,793 on a Panasonic Toughbook laptop - about three months before he lost his re-election bid in a December runoff. The office of Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat, listed a $22 expenditure on a Liz Claiborne cell-phone pouch. A spokeswoman for Fattah said it was “nothing fancy.” The ledger of former Rep. Darlene Hooley, an Oregon Democrat, noted an $81 payment to the Plant Tender. The paperwork for Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Florida Democrat, include an $11,000 payment on his House-issued credit card to cover airfare for him and an aide incurred in September. Mahoney, who lost his re-election bid, said that the expense represented 13 trips over a two-month period.
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