Watchdogs Press for New Rules Allowing Review and Audits of Taxpayer–Funded Expenditures by Members of Congress
Today, the Campaign Legal Center, joined by Common Cause, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen urged the Committee on House Administration to adopt new rules making clear that expenditures from Members’ Representation Allowances (MRAs) are subject to review and approval by the Committee. Lax oversight of Members’ expenses has led to a series of scandals, the most recent leading to the resignation of Rep. Aaron Schock. The letter also urged the Committee to allow MRA budgets to be periodically audited for compliance with the Members’ Congressional Handbook and House ethics rules.
“The current process of relying on Member discretion simply does not work," said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director. “Time and again it has led to scandals that have reflected badly on the Congress and eroded public confidence in the institution. At the end of the day, these Members are ill-served having their travel and expense requests rubber stamped. Having set rules and actual oversight of the spending of taxpayer dollars would be invaluable service to the institution.”
Earlier this month, the Committee adopted new regulations governing permissible reimbursements for automobile mileage, private aircraft use, and office decoration and instructing the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the House of Representatives to submit a proposal to create a “searchable, sortable” online database of Members of Congress’s expense reports. The Committee also directs the CAO to develop proposals by November 21 to improve “the internal processes, procedures, and training for compliance with the Voucher Documentation Standards.”
The groups commended the Committee for taking these actions and urged a closer review of the provisions concerning MRAs. The letter stated that “it is our understanding that the Committee on House Administration has taken the position that they provide “guidance” to Member offices on the use of the MRA, but the Committee and its staff are not empowered, under current rules, to formally approve or reject specific expenditures.”
“It is our understanding” the letter continued, “that the House Finance Office (the office to which vouchers are submitted) takes the same position. This approach of deferring to Members played a role in creating the House Bank scandal of the 1990s when Members were permitted to overdraw their accounts without penalty. Further, the House Ethics Committee frequently is too accommodating to Members’ wishes, focusing more on helping Members to fit what they want to do within—and around—the rules than promoting and encouraging high ethical standards. The Ethics Committee’s timidity played a significant role in the creating the need for the Office of Congressional Ethics. Saying “yes” to Members is also embedded in the DNA of the CAO and the House Finance Office. The CAO should be empowered to review Members’ expenditures, raise questions, and refer a proposed disapproval to the House Administration Committee for final disapproval.”
The letter concluded by noting the importance of the creation of a searchable, sortable database containing information on how taxpayer money is being spent by Representatives.
To read the letter, click here.