An Expense-ive Proposition

Abusing public trust during tough economic times at your peril

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared this week that all member office expenses will have to be posted on the Internet. This, after The Wall Street Journal reported that several members "have used their allowance for luxury cars and high-end electronics. Rules forbid senators and representatives from using the equipment for their personal benefit."  Seems like the rules have loopholes large enough to, well, drive a Lexus sedan through.

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to decide whether to follow Pelosi's lead -- even as the perennial gadfly, conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn is introducing a bill to force the issue

These elected officials' reticence to have this sort of transparency is understandable. A quick look across the Pond shows why.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour government has been unpopular for more than a year, but now it's on the verge of collapse over a scandal involving misuse of expenses by Members of Parliament and Cabinet officials. The scandal has touched Conservatives as well as Labour, but incumbent Labour has been much slower to respond to it -- ironic given that the most egregious example of shoving personal services on the taxpayers involves a Conservative MP who had his moat dredged and initially had it expensed.  

In any event, the controversy has metastasized: Three members of Brown's Cabinet resigned this week -- one, a close ally who urged  Brown to quit, too, as he headed out the door

While the actual amounts of the misused expenses weren't much (the moat dredging was about only $2,200 in American currency), but there's a principle here that British public feels is being violated. 

It's a sentiment that hit the U.S. nearly two decades ago. Twenty-two members of the House of Representatives were cited by the Ethics Committee for misuse of the House's internal bank. Members over-drafted thousands of checks and took months to pay them back. Because it was an internal institution, no members broke any law. However, the ability of Congress to have access to and abuse a perk drew fury from the public. Of the 22 members cited, 11 lost either primary or general election contests after the news broke. 

Indeed, the House banking scandal was part of a perceived atmosphere of entitlement and corruption that helped Republicans sweep Democrats out of power in 1994. Something similar seems about to happen shortly in the UK.

It's hardly a coincidence that both of these majority-ending scandals occurred during times of economic uncertainty (the 1991-92 recession in the US vs. the current worldwide economic downturn). Relatively minor transactions by public servants that might have been tolerated at other times instead provoke total outrage. Why not, politicians are supposedly working on the public dime -- and they instead help themselves to perks "above and beyond" what is appropriate -- when the average person is cutting back on expenses (assuming they have managed to hold onto their jobs).

What will the new expense "transparency" in Congress produce this time around? 

Stay tuned.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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