House to post lawmaker expenses online

The House is planning to post lawmakers' expenditures online by the end of August in an effort to improve transparency.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a letter Wednesday asking Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Dan Beard to post annual expenditures online so they are available to the public.

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“The House is making every effort to operate in a transparent manner and online publication of these reports will expand accountability to taxpayers and the press,” Pelosi said in her letter.

Members receive between $1.3 million and $4.5 million for their annual office allowances, which they can spend on everything from BlackBerrys to plane tickets back to their district. For more than a century the House’s accounting of these purchases has been limited to thick, bound paper volumes made available through the House Legislative Resource Center in the Capitol or the Government Printing Office.

Given the Obama administration’s general push for more transparency, the move to make more open lawmaker expenditures funded by the taxpayers is a natural.

The move by the House could result in a new wave of reforms according to the founder of a website that publishes much of the House and Senate financial expenditure data online, including staff salary information and travel costs of members.

"We got reports from people saying that the publication of this information caused the offices to reevaluate how they did salaries and to make sure that they were a little bit more easily justifiable," said Jock Friedly, founder of Legistorm, who added that perhaps members would be less inclined to make extraneous purchases, like they did with their travel habits, if they knew the public was watching.

“There is a night and day difference between the kinds of trips that were taken before and now,” he said. “Some of that is the House and Senate tightened up what kinds of travel you can take, but also the added scrutiny caused by the availability of these records online has caused members of Congress to think twice about whether they really want to take a trip that might not look all that good to constituents.”

Pelosi said the limited availability of the bound records does not meet the public’s need for transparency.

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“[The printed] publishing [of the] material does not allow all interested parties to review the information contained in the reports,” she wrote in her letter.

Pelosi directed Beard to establish a website, which would be free to the public, to house these records. The CAO has not established the address of the website but is planning to make it public at a later date, according to a statement from the office.

“The online version will be a PDF…and will initially have the search capability provided by the Adobe software used to view PDF,” said a spokesman for the CAO in a statement.

The CAO is also in the process of creating a new financial processing system in the fall, according to Pelosi’s office, and the current processing system is not expected to hinder the records from being made available. The new system could enhance the search functionality of the financial records, said the CAO spokesman.

Pelosi had been in talks with Beard about making the records accessible online for “months” before Wednesday's letter was sent, according to Pelosi’s office.

There is not expected to be any additional cost to posting the records online nor is there expected to be any adjustment to the number of printed volumes made available to the public, according to Pelosi’s office.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m.