Saturday, May 30, 2009

Wall Street Journal Details Lavish Expenditures By Federal Lawmakers

Bob Segal of WTHR-TV Channel 13 has recently done a couple of excellent reports detailing the lavish expenditures of our Indiana state agencies. First, it was the piece on overpriced furniture, "State of Your Money: Sitting on Tax Dollars" which I blogged about. Then it was the trinkets and other items state agencies have been allowed to purchase in "State of Your Money: Taxpayer Trinkets."

Well, now the the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal has an interesting article detailing the expenditures of our federal lawmakers:

WASHINGTON -- 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.

The expenditures were legal, properly accounted for and drawn from allowances the U.S. government grants to lawmakers. Equipment purchased with office expense accounts must be returned to the House or the federal General Services Administration when a lawmaker leaves office.


U.S. politicians, unlike their counterparts in Great Britain, can't bill taxpayers for personal living expenses. The U.S. Treasury gives them an allowance to cover "official and representational expenses," according to congressional rules, and the lawmakers enjoy a fair amount of discretion in how they use the funds.

The Senate and House release volumes of the reimbursement requests for these allowances, but do not make them available electronically. A Wall Street Journal review of thousands of pages of these records for 2008 expenses showed most lawmaker spending flowed to areas such as staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing.

But it also turned up spending on an array of products, from the car leases and electronics to a high-end laptop computer and $22 cellphone holder. Rep. Howard Berman expensed $84,000 worth of personalized calendars, printed by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, for his constituents. A spokeswoman for Mr. Berman, a California Democrat, didn't return requests for comment.

The records show that some lawmakers spent heavily in the final months of the year to draw down allowances before the end of December -- a time when U.S. households were paring their budgets and lawmakers were criticizing Detroit auto executives for taking private aircraft to Washington to plead their case for taxpayer funding.

Rep. Hastings, a Democrat, and Rep. Turner, a Republican, made their purchases in the third quarter. Rep. Faleomavaega, a Democrat, bought the TVs for $1,473 apiece in mid-November. Spokespeople for the three didn't return requests for comment.

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. The disparity is based on several factors, with lawmakers whose home states are far from Washington, for example, typically receiving more to cover their higher travel expenses.

If lawmakers don't seek reimbursement for all of their allowance money for the year, the remainder doesn't roll over to the next year, but stays with the Treasury. The review showed that the increased year-end spending went not nly toward equipment but also to fund year-end "bonuses" to aides. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to an earlier Journal analysis. Payments ranged from a few hundred dollars to $14,000.


Even so, the accounts aren't easy to view or parse. House lawmakers submit receipts and records to the chief administrative officer, who publishes a statement each quarter that runs more than 3,000 pages. Each member's expense ledger takes up about six pages and includes a short description of each expense, its amount and the date incurred. The Senate publishes two volumes every six months, with descriptions that are less detailed than those published by the House.

Members of the public can request specific receipts, but lawmakers aren't required to provide them. Officials said they are exploring the possibility of publishing the information electronically but have no immediate plans to do so.

"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 House and Senate administrators can deny reimbursement if they deem an expense request to be inappropriate. Jeff Ventura, spokesman for House chief administrative officer Daniel Beard, said no formal records are kept on the number of claims deemed inappropriate, but that such instances are rare. The Senate operates similarly.

Staff salaries are the largest cost in most members' budgets, according to published details. Travel is another big cost center, with many lawmakers claiming funds for commercial air or train travel to and from their district, and for mileage on their cars or personal planes while they are there.


The records show several examples of spending on high-end electronics.

Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, spent $2,793 on a Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which is marketed to the military, in September, about three months before he lost his re-election bid in a December runoff. A lawyer for Mr. Jefferson, who is facing an unrelated federal bribery trial, declined to comment.


Many lawmakers don't spend their full allocation. 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.

It should be noted that Alcee Hastings was a federal judge before being elected to Congress. He is one of a handful of judges in the 220 years that has been impeached and removed from the federal court. The grounds for his removal was corruption and perjury.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article Lawmakers Bill Taxpayers for TVs, Cameras, Lexus (5/30/09)

Read related Wall street Journal article Lawmakers Have Long Rewarded Their Aides With Bonuses (04/01/09)

No comments: