Sunlight puts House office disbursements in database formBy Luke Rosiak Dec 02 2009 4:24 p.m.
Six months after promising to do so, the House on Monday, Nov. 30, published online its quarterly log of expenditures by members' offices. Until now, reporters and citizens who wondered how a congressman spent the taxpayer money allocated for operationslargely mundane expenditures on payroll and office supplies, but occasional spending on items such as luxury carshad to peruse tattered binders in a dingy basement or order a copy from the Government Printing Office.
But rather than release the expenditures as a spreadsheetsortable and easy to import into other applications for analysisthe Office of the Chief Administrative Officer essentially uploaded images of the clunky book, a format that would take a tech wizard to turn into something more appropriate for the digital age. Fortunately, the Sunlight Foundation has a few of those around. Click here for downloadable, searchable data listing disbursements by each representative's office.
- Cisco Systems The House IT and other administrative departments purchased roughly $5 million in hardware.
- US Postal Service While snail-mail use by citizens has dropped precipitously, sending the service into financial turmoil, Congressional offices paid it nearly $6 million in the three-month period.
- Pitney Bowes Government Solutions The Chief Administrative Officer paid more than $4 million for a non-technology service contract. The CAO is the office responsible for putting out the disbursement reports. (The document management contractor spent $1.2 million on lobbying last year.)
- CDW Government Inc. - Non-member offices spent nearly $4 million, largely on computer hardware.
- Lockheed Martin Desktop Solutions - The wide-ranging defense contractor's foray into software netted it roughly $3 million in one quarter for constituent contact management systems, on track for $12 million per year.
- iConstituent LLC One hundred seventy-eight members spent more than $700,000 on mail-tracking and other services.
|Most expensive||Least expensive|
|Jim Oberstar (Minn.)||$345,000||Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.)||$143,000|
|Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.)||$325,000||Gregorio Sablan (Northern Mariana Islands)||$168,000|
|Barney Frank (Mass.)||$323,000||Tim Murphy (Penn.)||$174,000|
|Bart Gordon (Tenn.)||$315,000||Tom Perriello (Va.)||$174,000|
|Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.)||$304,000||Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio)||$177,000|
Spending on travel between members' home districts and Washington was topped by Alaska's Don Young ($71,000); Guam's Madeleine Bordallo ($66,000); Steve King ($43,000); Kansas' Jerry Moran ($42,000); New Mexico's Harry Teague ($40,000); and Arkansas' Marion Berry ($39,000). Meanwhile, the District of Columbia's non-voting Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton spent $2,300 on travel.
Most expensive offices
Total expenditures overall were topped by Wisconsin's Steve Kagen ($452,000); Florida's Alan Grayson ($449,000); and Tennessee's Bart Gordon ($445,000).
Since the nation's birth, members of Congress have been allowed to send mail to their constituents stamp-free. While the mail cannot be campaign-related, it can give an incumbent added name-recognition in his district. Top "frankers" include: Maryland's John Sarbanes ($72,000); Maine's Chellie Pingree ($72,000); and Louisiana's Steve Scalise ($71,000). Members are allocated a set amount, for which the post office is reimbursed, but the extent to which members use the privilege varies.
Opacity of descriptions
In roughly 100,000 member line-items, there are only 1,150 different descriptions, meaning purchases are being lumped into generic containers. It's often impossible to evaluate the financial prudence of a purchase without knowing the details. In fact, travel is often described simply as "commercial transportation," with no indication of the destination -- the word "airfare" doesn't appear even a single time in the document, nor does "television." With this level of generalized descriptors, the scandal recently plaguing the British Parliament in which members used office funds for construction of a moat and pornography would not have been aired; those may well have appeared as "habitation expenses" (360 items are described as such) under such a disclosure system.
"We made the changes so there will be standardization across the board even with how the executive branch reports expenditures," said Jeff Ventura, spokesperson for the Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard. "If a member of the media needs more details, they can call a member's office or a committee office and ask for it."
Turning the PDF version of the disbursements into a spreadsheet is a surprisingly complicated task--an argument for why truly making something "online" means putting it in the right format, not just scanning and uploading images, but also a reason to, out of an abundance of caution, check with the original image file and the explanations on the House site before reporting numbers.
Anupama Narayanswamy contributed reporting. James Turk contributed research.
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