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How Much Did Your Congressman Cost?

$4.3 million spent in 3rd quarter by N.C.’s 13 House members

The 13 members of North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation spent $4.3 million in taxpayer funds to run their offices during the third quarter of 2009, including costs for leased hybrid cars, snacks, and bottled water, congressional receipts and expenditures for the third quarter show.

The records, published online in November for the first time, give taxpayers a bird’s-eye view of how lawmakers use their congressional allowances, which range as high as $1.9 million annually.

In the past, the disbursements, prepared by the Chief Administrative Officer of the House, were available only in hard-copy format.

Receipts show that Tar Heel congressmen paid their staffs $3.13 million in the third quarter, devoted about a quarter-million dollars to travel, and spent $13,277.64 on food, drinks, and bottled water. They also paid $56,000 a month in district office rent and $2,259.22 a month for leased vehicles.

Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic leaders in the House paid six-figure salaries to over one-third of their staffs and spent reams of cash on food and decorating their offices.

Although open-government advocates credit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for making the records easier to access, some criticize Congress for substituting unclear line-item descriptions for the more detailed information available in past reports.

The disbursements once included specifics right down to equipment model numbers, but the current version includes only identifications such as “habitation expense” and “office supplies.”

“It’s still extremely vague,” said David Williams, vice president of public policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based watchdog organization. “People and taxpayers really want to know the details. Politicians are really afraid of that. For years they’ve gotten away with spending money on these trinkets.”

Others say that Pelosi’s transparency overtures may score few points with voters in the 2010 midterm elections, which current polls put at a statistical dead heat between Republicans and Democrats.

“It might not matter,” said N.C. State political science professor Andrew Taylor. “I’m not sure the average voter really understands these things and is able to make use of any additional information that is available to them.”

Tar Heel budgets

Rep. Sue Myrick, R-9th District, had the highest total expenses for the third quarter. She spent nearly $8,000 to rent two district offices — one in upscale south Charlotte, the other in downtown Gastonia.

Myrick tied District 11 Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler for spending the most on travel — about $30,000 — among the delegation.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-6th, had the highest-paid chief of staff, Edward McDonald, at $42,102.75 in the third quarter. McDonald’s 2008 earnings almost matched Coble’s $174,000 annual salary for 2009.

Most Tar Heel representatives paid their staffs roughly a quarter-million dollars. Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st, and Virginia Foxx, R-5th, paid the least, at $197,000 apiece.

District 8 Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell spent $8,841.63 for lodging during the quarter. Almost half of that came from a trip his chief of staff, Susan Powell, took in June.

“Our chief of staff is located in the district. When she goes to Washington, D.C., there is [a] lodging expense,” said Haven Kerchner, Kissell’s spokeswoman, when asked by Carolina Journal about the trip.

Four lawmakers opted to lease cars rather than request mileage reimbursements for private vehicles. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-7th, leased two 2009 Chevrolet Malibus, one of them a hybrid. Myrick also leased a hybrid — a 2009 Honda Civic.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Brad Miller, a 13th District Democrat, said leasing a 2008 Ford Escape saved taxpayers $2,487.65 this year compared to the cost of mileage reimbursements for a private vehicle.

Shuler didn’t lease a vehicle but spent several thousand on rental cars. Shuler’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Compared to their peers, a handful of congressmen spent pennies on the dollar in certain categories. Price, for instance, spent $350.28 on franked mail, a taxpayer-funded service for members of Congress meant to encourage correspondence with constituents. Several other members spent tens of thousands of dollars on the mailings.

Leaders spendthrift

The state delegation’s costs pale in comparison to budgets for congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Pelosi paid six-figure salaries to one third of her employees, for a total payroll during the quarter of $1.12 million.

Pelosi’s counterpart, Republican House Leader John Boehner of Ohio, had a half-million dollar payroll and 17 of 29 staffers received six-figure salaries.

Boehner also spent $27,000 on snacks and drinks, while Pelosi devoted almost $4,000 to decorating her office.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was the most spendthrift on salaries among non-leadership members, even paying one of his administrative assistants a six-figure salary.

Sunlight criticism

Pelosi in June ordered the disbursement records published online, shortly 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 pornographic movies.

“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.

But critics say the records are actually a step back in government accountability, since they are less detailed than previous reports.

“When taxpayers had information, that whole thing blew up [in Great Britain],” Williams said. “People are just begging for that here. People want as much detail as possible.”

Taylor said Congress could better improve government accountability by simplifying the legislative process and making it easier for constituents to track legislation.

“That’s the kind of transparency that would likely have a positive effect, not incremental stuff on the edges,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.