House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's directive for lawmakers to disclose individual office spending online for the first time was billed as a victory for transparency. Well, not really. Earlier this month, the House clerk posted 3,400 pages of expense reports detailing about $300 million in spending on everything from staff salaries to mail, but the effort was a sham. The new disclosure system hides more than it reveals.
Mrs. Pelosi trumpeted the move online for reports that for decades had been released only on paper as providing "a full accounting of Members' and officers' spending for official congressional business" that "will expand accountability to taxpayers and the press." However, instead of including specific details - such as which staffers were taking what trips or what electronics they bought - the speaker has allowed these types of personal expenses to be hidden in broad categories such as "equipment" or "comp. Hardware." Travel expenses are bundled together with no details about who went where.
Despite there being no requirement, lawmakers historically have included specific itemized details in their expense reports to the House clerk, who compiles the data. How much was spent on rent for specific district offices was once included in the final report, but now the money is not even linked to individual addresses.
Mrs. Pelosi's paper-based reports from April to June of this year showed expenses for specific staff traveling to Boston, New York, Florida and her San Francisco district. Her most recent online posting for office expenses from July though September provides only a general listing for about $10,000 in "commercial transportation" expenses.
The more detailed reports used to focus uncomfortable scrutiny on lawmakers, providing the public a view of the luxury automobile leases and other expensive taxpayer-funded spending habits of our public servants. Hiding the details and making reporting more difficult certainly serve the interests of congressional incumbents who like to live in luxury without paying a political price. Increased accountability, this is not.
Luckily, even under the murky new system, some profligacy can't be hidden - such as Mrs. Pelosi's penchant for fresh-cut flower arrangements. Last quarter, she spent $2,993 of taxpayer funds on flowers.
Despite pulling a new cloak of secrecy over lavish spending by members of the House, the speaker continues to claim Democrats are operating the House "in a transparent and accountable manner." That's bunk. Mrs. Pelosi can claim that hiding information from the public is a victory for transparency all she wants, but a rose by any other name is still a rose. After spending three grand on flowers in three months, she should know that.