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Transparency Squandered

By Matthew Yglesias on December 1, 2009 at 11:28 am

"Transparency Squandered"

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(cc photo by Swami Stream)

(cc photo by Swami Stream)

In an interesting decision, Nancy Pelosi agreed earlier this year to start releasing more details online about what House members spend their office expense allocation on. Predictably this kind of well-intentioned transparency initiative serves mostly to reduce the public’s understanding of what’s going on. In principle, journalists could use the information to write better-informed stories about congress. Instead, you get things like a Politico article that leads with Pelosi’s spending on flowers and James Clyburn’s spending on donuts that had to be corrected because it “incorrectly reported the amounts Nancy Pelosi’s office spent on flowers and James Clyburn’s office spent on donuts.”

Astounding.

And I’ve been around this business long enough to be certain that nobody at Politio at any level gave any consideration to the idea of doing a story designed to give readers an accurate overall understanding of how congressional office expenses work or what members normally use their allocations for. It’s a fact that’s all the more astounding since if you read the article the authors clearly actually know some relevant facts. For example, “the bulk of congressional office spending goes to salaries and routine office expenses” and “[o]ne of the biggest line items for congressional offices outside of salaries tends to be the pricy subscriptions to Congressional Quarterly, which produces high end legislative tracking products, a magazine and a daily publication.” Since the “bulk” goes to salaries, it might be nice to tell us exactly how much (55 percent? 74 percent?) or something about how much congressional staff gets paid. Curiously, the article about congressional office spending doesn’t even tell us how much money a member of congress gets to spend on running his office. It implies that there are extra allocations for members of the leadership, but doesn’t explain anything about how this works. But obviously if you want people to understand congress’s spending on itself, you have to explain who decides how the money gets spent and what the bulk of the money gets spent on.

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