The following post originally appeared on www.fiscalaccountability.org:
A few weeks ago, we discussed how disclosures of British members’ of Parliament expenditures are causing a stir with taxpayer dollars being spent on products and services ranging from cleaning services over porn movies, to horse manure and cat food. In light of this growing controversy, the Wall Street Journal reviewed thousands of pages of reimbursement requests for Congressional allowances for 2008 expenses.
The result: While most of the expenditures went to areas such as staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing (unlike British members of Parliament U.S. members of Congress cannot get reimbursed for personal living expenses), the Journal came across a number of "eye-catching" expenditures:
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.
(…) 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.
While legal and properly accounted for, such expenditures raise eyebrows especially at a time when taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet. What’s more, is that as the Wall Street Journal discovered, most of the expenditures were made towards the end of the year. Explains the Journal:
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 only toward equipment but also to fund year-end "bonuses" to aides.
In light of the current push for greater accountability in government finance, now would be the perfect time to take another look at the practice of expense allowances, and if not reformed in terms of amounts granted and allowable expenditures, at a minimum, the reimbursement requests should be made availabe in a searchable online database available to the public.