British Expense Scandal Should be Lesson for U.S. Lawmakers | Citizens Against Government Waste

British Expense Scandal Should be Lesson for U.S. Lawmakers

The WasteWatcher

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) in Great Britain was founded in 2004 by Andrew Allum, Matthew Elliott and Florence Heath to “represent taxpayers and to fight for lower taxes.”  Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has been working with the organization on a wide variety of issues, including more transparency in government for British taxpayers. 

TPA has grown by leaps and bounds.  As of September of 2008, TPA had 20,000 supporters; the group is quoted in the media an average of 13 times a day.

In October 2007, TPA contacted CAGW and asked for advice on how to track the expenses of elected officials.  After CAGW provided the requested information, TPA undertook an aggressive campaign to expose questionable expenses by British officials.

On May 8, 2009, TPA’s work came to fruition.  According to the Associated Press, “Britain’s Daily Telegraph published details of claims related to 13 ministers and offered examples of hundreds of other bills submitted by lawmakers to Parliamentary authorities. The documents revealed how some lawmakers used lax regulations to accumulate hefty bills to pay for housing taxes and costs of furnishing homes, while others claimed for trivial amounts – including a packet of ginger snaps worth about $1, two cans of cat food and an ice cube tray.  One lawmaker claimed the cost of servicing the swimming pool of his country home, while another paid for a hunter to catch moles who’d invaded his garden, according to the newspaper.”

TPA and the London-based Daily Mail launched a campaign to bring the guilty MPs to justice.  A May 15 Daily Mail article noted that the newspaper, “today backs a move to bring to justice MPs whose flagrant abuse of expenses has shamed Britain.  We are joining forces with the TaxPayers’ Alliance to launch a campaign for the private prosecutions of backbenchers and ministers who have pocketed thousands of pounds through dishonest claims.  The campaign follows seven days of extraordinary disclosures which have dragged the reputation of British politics to a shameful low point.”

On May 19, British House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin resigned, the first such resignation in 300 years.  The AP wrote, “The powerful speaker of the British House of Commons resigned Tuesday because of a backlash over excessive expense claims by lawmakers, marking the first time in three centuries a speaker has been forced out.  Though Michael Martin has not been caught up in recent revelations about lawmakers expenses – reimbursements for chandeliers, moat cleaning and mortgage payments have outraged taxpayers – he was blamed for creating a climate in which such excesses were allowed.”

Jacqui Smith, Britain’s first female Home Secretary, resigned on June 2, 2009 as the expense records revealed that her husband used taxpayers’ money to buy bath plugs and pornographic films.

On May 30, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about some questionable expenses by members of the United States Congress.  The newspaper’s “review of thousands of pages of these records for 2008 expenses showed most lawmaker spending flowed to areas such as staff salaries, travel, office rent and supplies, and printing and mailing.  Rep. Howard Berman expensed $84,000 worth of personalized calendars, printed by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, for his constituents. …  Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, spent $2,793 on a Panasonic Toughbook laptop, which is marketed to the military, in September, about three months before he lost his re-election bid in a December runoff. … Some members detail small expenses. The office of Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Pennsylvania Democrat, described a $22 expenditure on a Liz Claiborne cell phone pouch.”

According to the June 4 Washington Examiner, “As things currently stand, the only way to get those reports is either to navigate to the one obscure office in the Capitol where they are kept as hard copies, or to buy them.”

Fearing backlash similar to the British expense scandal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced on June 3, 2009 that she is directing Dan Beard, Chief Administrative Officer, to post annual expenses on line.  The UK scandal should make it clear that a lack of transparency has real consequences.

In a twist of irony in this tale, on June 22, the UK-based Echo News reported that yet another MP is under fire for questionable expenses, this time for receipts for the purchase of three action movies, including Robert DeNiro’s “Men of Honor.”

David E. Williams

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