Government Reform

A New Direction to the Same Destination

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On Monday the Statement of Disbursements of the House, a quarterly report that shows how congressonal offices are spending taxpayer money, became available online for the first time. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) bragged that the move demonstrated once again how open and honest "the New Direction Congress" is:

The Statement of Disbursement provides a full accounting of Members' and officers' spending for official Congressional business. The continued publication of these statements online will expand accountability to taxpayers and the press.

The New Direction Congress has passed unprecedented disclosure and lobbying reform laws, created an independent ethics office, and will continue to operate in a transparent and accountable manner.

But Congress.org discovered that the new, ready-for-the-Internet version of the spending report omits potentially eyebrow-raising details that used to be included in the print edition. Instead of saying who in each congressional office traveled where on the taxpayer's dime, for instance, the latest report simply gives totals for "commercial transportation." Instead of specifying which fancy computer, video, or sound equipment an office bought, it gives numbers for categories such as "computer hardware purchase" or "equipment purchase." It reports rent paid for district offices but not the locations of those offices. The Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison tells Congress.org:

Releasing incomplete office expense information online demonstrates the House's one step forward, two steps back approach to transparency. One would think that members who dispose of trillions of dollars in taxpayer money would be up front about how they're managing their office budgets. If members were worried how flat screen TV purchases and the like would look to their constituents during tough economic times, hiding the information serves only to raise questions about the entire House.

You can peruse the Statement of Disbursements here. But now that all the juicy details have been removed, why bother?

Update: As Gabriela Schneider of the Sunlight Foundation points out in the comments, her group has created a searchable database of the spending information in the new report.