Days after becoming the nation's first female Speaker of the House in 2006, Nancy Pelosi pledged to create "the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history." The statement appears ludicrous now given Congress' smarmy image, thanks in large part to Pelosi's theatrics on a host of issues.
At the time, though, many Americans were willing to give Democrats a shot. President Bush was wildly unpopular, and congressional Republicans were plagued by scandal. Pelosi and her fellow liberals rode into office on a tidal wave of discontent.
But although Pelosi has huffed and puffed vociferously, she's failed to deliver on her transparency pledges. Trillion-dollar stimulus packages and runaway spending have afforded Democrats ample opportunity for secrecy, as have eleventh hour amendments to health-care reform and a lackadaisical approach to making the bill's content available to voters.
The result: a congressional approval rating of 26 percent.
In that atmosphere, it's no surprise that Pelosi's sunshine efforts have become more about improving Democrats' public image than giving Americans easy access to data on how government operates and spends. Pelosi is only interested in sunshine if she can shield her allies from the rays.
The latest example is her request that Congress's Statement of Disbursements be published online.
The massive document, prepared by the Chief Administrative Officer of the House, traces how each member of Congress spent their taxpayer-funded representational allowance, which ranges as high as $1.9 million per year. Lawmakers use the funds for staff salaries, district office rent, travel, equipment, snacks and bottled water, and a range of other expenses.
Pelosi ordered the line-items published online after evidence surfaced in Great Britain that members of Parliament lived high on the hog on the taxpayers' dime, including reimbursements for home repairs and pornography.
"The House is making every effort to operate in a transparent manner and online publication of these reports will expand accountability to taxpayers and the press," Pelosi said at the time.
On Nov. 30, Congress made available a PDF of disbursements -- a cumbersome 3,404-page document -- during the third quarter. Until now, the disbursements have only been available in hard copy format in Washington, D.C.
But while concerned citizens and reporters should be thankful for small favors, the report lacks necessary simplicity and detail. Researchers must download the document and do a word search to locate their representative. An online database, searchable by line item and representative, would be far better. (Thankfully, the non-profit Sunlight Foundation has picked up for Congress's slack and provided just such a database.
The descriptions of congressional expenditures are even shoddier. Calling them cryptic would be too polite.
"It's still extremely vague," said David Williams, vice president of public policy for Citizens Against Government Waste. "People and taxpayers really want to know the details. Politicians are really afraid of that."
Indeed. It's nice to know, for instance, that Pelosi spent around $33,000 on food, beverages, and bottled water and $4,000 on "habitation expenses," but it's not useful unless we know the specifics.
After all, MPs in Great Britain could have written off their porn flicks as "habitation expenses," and no one would have been the wiser.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, spent nearly as much as Pelosi on drinks and munchies for his office. Maybe some of the expenses are necessary; surely all of them aren't. Lawmakers tend to get careless when they know constituents and journalists probably won't bother to crunch the numbers.
It gets worse, though. As Congress.org reports, the latest disbursements report is actually less forthcoming than older versions, despite Pelosi's grandstanding about transparency.
The report for the second quarter, available only in hard copy format, contains more detailed descriptions, sometimes getting as specific as the model number on a laptop. Both the online and hard copy versions now lack those important details.
Lawmakers don't want the sordid details of their financial doings readily available to their constituents -- that's a given. But those tidbits are vital to the mission of holding public officials responsible for their actions. Otherwise, they can hide behind a cleverly worded expense code.
Although Pelosi's latest double cross of the American people hasn't gotten a peep out of the most media outlets, it should dim the lights several more notches on the Democrats' chances in the mid-term elections. Both Republicans and Democrats are culpable for abusing their allowances, but making that information public is first and foremost the responsibility of congressional leaders.
What a difference three years makes. That's how long it's taken for Pelosi's most ethical Congress in history to become one of the least ethical.
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