Yesterday the House of Representatives began publishing its spending data online as a spreadsheet (and continued publishing it online as a PDF file).
As Josh Tauberer explains in Open Government Data: The Book, the compilation of spending data, known as the Statements of Disbursements, includes “how much congressmen and their staffs are paid, what kinds of expenses they have, and who they are paying for those services.” While it does not contain all the nitty-gritty details, the Disbursements data can tell you a lot about the health and activities of Congress.
Yesterday’s publication includes the full dataset for the first quarter of 2016 in a 17.8 MB CSV file, and a smaller 502 KB summary file in CSV format. The information is also published as a PDF, which it has been since November 2009.
The prompt for the House to publish the information online in 2009 came from the “Parliamentary Expenses Scandal” in the United Kingdom. Members of Parliament used their expense accounts for incredibly stupid stuff, such as one member with the Dickensian name Douglas Hogg who spent money to clean out the moat at what I presume must have been his castle. There were many other eye-rolling examples. (Here’s a full accounting of the fall-out.)
When I was at the Sunlight Foundation, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi recognized the usefulness of our suggestion to begin publishing the reports online. Her commitment to better government made it happen, and I’m sure she ran endless traps for what was the right thing to do, even though it was probably difficult and a largely thankless task. Eventually, belatedly, the Senate began publishing their reports online as well in 2011, thanks to a legislative nudge by then-Sen. Coburn.
On behalf of the Congressional Data Coalition and several organizations where I have worked (including Demand Progress), I have advocated for the House and Senate to publish this information as data, not just a PDF. Publishing the information as data means that it’s much easier to reuse the information and analyze its contents. The Sunlight Foundation built a helpful tool that scrapes the expenditures data, so it eventually became possible for anyone to download an unofficial account for the spending information.
At one time, I put together an extensive list of the smart and silly uses of this data and examples of each. Among the most powerful stories it can tell include looking at patterns in congressional staff pay, staff turnover rates, the best and worst members to work for, issues arising from the revolving door, corruption, and a full accounting of all congressional staff in the form of a free staff directory. Seamus Kraft of the OpenGov Foundation used it to identify trends in information technology spending. Of course, the information can be used for silly or counter-productive purposes, such as reporting on how much then-Speaker Pelosi spent on flowers, member spending on bottled water, etc.
The political impetus to publish Congress’s financial books as data arose in the House of Representatives from a commitment and another scandal. At the start of the 114th Congress, the House of Representatives adopted as part of its rules package a commitment to make legislative documents available in machine-readable formats. The Aaron Shock scandal — including lax reporting on his travel and redecoration budgets and unusual staffing choices — impelled the House to create a special task force of Reps. Rodney Davis and Zoe Lofgren to address spending improprieties and improve reporting.
One of our recommendations to the task force, some of which they adopted and turned into a resolution that was approved by the Committee on House Administration, was the publication of the Statements of Disbursements as data. Yesterday’s publication of this data turns their commitment into reality.
We have yet to analyze the data released by the House of Representatives for completeness, accuracy, patterns, and to ensure it contains an appropriate level of detail. I suspect in the days ahead we will have more to say about whether there’s enough information regarding the dates and destination of travel and the means thereof, for example.
The Senate should follow the House’s lead and publish its own statements of disbursements — which it calls “report of the Secretary to the Senate” — in a digital spreadsheet format like a CSV. Most of this information already is available unofficially from the Sunlight Foundation, but it should come from an official source. The House has shown the way forward.
We also believe improvement should be made in how members of the House and Senate report their data to their respective administrative committees. This article on the Congressional Accounting and Personnel System (CAPS) illustrates why Congress must fully overhaul its accounting systems and financial oversight processes. It should be easy (or at least easier) for congressional offices to track and report spending information. We are not looking for more reporting requirements (except to fill the gaps), but we do want better and more accurate reporting that is easier for everyone to implement.
Congratulations to the House of Representatives for publishing its financial books in a useful digital format. Now comes the hard work of seeing what’s there.