- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Information on how senators are spending their multimillion-dollar budgets for staff salaries, travel and office expenses may soon be just a computer mouse click away.

The Senate is planning to follow the House in posting office expenses on the Internet instead of in volumes that must be purchased or viewed in Capitol office buildings.

The idea, says Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, is to let people see what their lawmakers are doing with their taxpayer-funded office accounts — and hold their feet to the fire for questionable expenses.

“They’ve got it on computer. Just now make it available so everybody in the country can see it,” Mr. Coburn said. “So if you see something that doesn’t look right, you can hold us accountable.”

Mr. Coburn’s move, expected to be approved Monday in a vote on a routine appropriations bill funding Congress’ own budget, would require that office expenses be posted online. The House and Senate would have to pass a compromise final bill before the new rule would take effect.

The Senate’s move follows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s instructions last month to Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard to post House members’ expense reports “online at the earliest date.” Mr. Beard has indicated that the expense reports will be posted by Aug. 31.

The more open disclosures would follow a major scandal involving the British Parliament and revelations of questionable or outright ridiculous expenses, such as $3,000 to replace a leaky pipe under a Conservative member’s tennis court. Parliament’s records previously had been secret.

Would-be watchdogs probably should temper their expectations of what they’ll find in the congressional reports. For starters, living expenses aren’t covered as they are in Great Britain. Instead, the curious will find salaries of lawmakers’ staff aides, travel costs and itineraries, office supplies, rents for home-state offices and other mundane costs.

House members are permitted to lease cars — typically sport utility vehicles — instead of claiming per-mile reimbursements for their official travel, which has led watchdog groups to question whether the system is open to abuse.

Watchdogs also say lawmakers often send mass mailings as close to Election Day as permitted under the rules, give employee bonuses after winning re-election and sometimes rent district offices and purchase services from friends and family members.

Advocates of greater transparency in the system say such potential problems should become rarer with the increased public disclosures.

“There’s no question about it that anytime you make records more accessible it’s much harder to get away with abuses,” said Jock Friedly, founder of LegiStorm, a Web site that publishes salary information and financial disclosures of congressional staff aides. “A little bit of embarrassment will go a long way to fixing some of the problems.”

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