Senate to Post Staff Salaries, Expenses on Web

By Andrew Taylor | July 7, 2009 | 5:59 AM EDT
Washington (AP) - How your senators are spending their multimillion-dollar budgets for staff salaries, travel and office expenses may soon be just a computer mouse click away.
 
The Senate is planning to follow the House in posting office expenses on the Internet instead of in volumes that must to be purchased or viewed in Capitol office buildings.
 
The idea, says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is to let people see what their lawmakers are doing with their taxpayer-funded office accounts -- and hold their feet to the fire for questionable expenses.
 
"They've got it on computer. Just now make it available so everybody in the country can see it," Coburn said. "So if you see something that doesn't look right, you can hold us accountable."
 
Coburn's move -- which would require office expenses to be posted online -- was approved Monday by voice vote as the Senate passed a routine appropriations bill funding Congress' own budget. The bill would provide senators with office budgets of $3.1 million to $4.9 million next year, depending on the population of their state and other factors.
 
The House and Senate would have to pass a compromise final bill before the new rule would take effect.
 
The Senate's move follows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's instructions last month to Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard to post House members' expense reports "online at the earliest date." Beard has indicated that the expense reports would be posted by Aug. 31 of this year.
 
The more open disclosures would follow a major scandal involving the British Parliament and revelations of questionable or outright ridiculous expenses, such as $3,000 to replace a leaky pipe under a Conservative member's tennis court. Parliament's records had previously been secret.
 
Would-be watchdogs should probably tamper their expectations of what they'll find in the congressional reports. For starters, living expenses aren't covered as they are in Great Britain. Instead, they'll find salaries of lawmakers' staff aides, travel costs and itineraries, office supplies, rents for homestate offices and other mundane costs.
 
House members are permitted to lease cars -- typically SUVs -- instead of claiming per-mile reimbursements for their official travel, which has led watchdog groups to question whether the system is open to abuse.
 
Watchdogs also say that lawmakers often send mass mailings as close to Election Day as permitted under the rules, give employee bonuses after winning re-election and sometimes rent district offices and purchase services from friends and family members.
 
Advocates of greater transparency in the system say such potential problems should become more rare with the increased public disclosures.
 
"There's no question about it that any time you make records more accessible it's much harder to get away with abuses," said Jock Friedly, founder of LegiStorm, a Web site that publishes salary information and financial disclosures of congressional staff aides. "A little bit of embarrassment will go a long way to fixing some of the problems."
 
The underlying $3.1 billion legislative branch appropriations bill passed by a 67-25 vote. It was the first of the 12 annual appropriations bills to pass the Senate. The chamber takes up an almost $43 billion measure funding homeland security accounts on Tuesday.
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