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2018 Worth Bingham Prize winners David McSwane, left, and Andrew Chavez, right, with Clara Bingham Lisa Abitbol

Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism

Financial Reports Hide Actual Spending


Six-part series

This is the sixth and last of a series of articles on Congressional spending by Worth Bingham of The Courier-Journal and Times Washington Bureau.

Part 1: Our Costly Congress

Part 2: Expense Facts Compared To Iceberg — Most Hidden

Part 3: All Is Not Passing Of Laws

Part 4: Free-Mail Privilege Proves A Boon To Incumbents

Part 5: New Building May Top Pentagon Cost

Washington, July 26 — The year 1960 proved to be a long, grueling one for Congress — and for the Rev. Frederick Brown Harris, the Senate chaplain.

Harris was in need of a vacation. What better place for one than the sun-kissed isles of Hawaii? There was one hitch.

Congressmen and their employees are not supposed to take vacations at the taxpayers’ expense.

The problem proved to have a simple solution. Harris was made an “ex officio” member of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on juvenile delinquency and on October 19, 1960, set out on a three-week trip to Hawaii with his wife. Harris’ $1,200 air, steamship, and rail fare was paid for out of committee funds.

Although Harris’ activities in Hawaii appeared to have little to do with studying juvenile delinquency, he said the trip “was not a junket by any manner of means.”

He Studied Problems

The chaplain said he studied “the problems growing out of the mingling of the races,” in Hawaii and “spent many hours with a fine group of citizens who are exposing the attempts at Communist infiltration there. I can’t remember the name of the group, offhand.”

Harris said he submitted a written report to the chairman of the juvenile­ delinquency subcommittee on his return, but this was news to subcommittee staff director Carl Perian.

“I don’t know who the man is, and I’m the staff director here,” Perian said. “He didn’t take the trip for us. We had no chairman at the time anyway. Senator (Thomas) Hennings was sick, and a new chairman hadn’t been appointed yet.”

The record of Harris’ trip appeared on Page 493 of the Report of the Secretary of the Senate for fiscal 1961. Although it deals with an interesting subject— expense accounts for senators, committees and staffs — the book is not destined to be a best seller. It has no index to help the reader sort out individual expense accounts from the thousands of recorded purchases of nuts, bolts, paper towels, and typewriter ribbons.

No Explanations

The book does not go in for explanations, either. It reveals that Nathan Koenig spent $12 for a motorboat ride from Pago Pago to Manuea and return in the fall of 1960, but it doesn’t say who Nathan Koenig is or what he was doing in the South Pacific.

Koenig was finally tracked down in the Department of Agriculture, where he is special assistant to the administrator of the agricultural marketing service. He explained that he was detailed to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs to do a study on economic conditions in American Samoa. Koenig’s trip cost the Government $1,122.

Perhaps a reviewer should not be too harsh about the secretary’s book. It is, after all, one of the few gestures the Senate makes toward detailing what its members and employees are doing with taxpayers’ money.

And sometimes the bare figures raise questions which can be referred back to the people involved, assuming they can be identified, are not dead or retired from Congress, and are willing to provide additional information.

Duffy’s Busy

For instance, how did James H. Duffy, a member of the staff of the subcommittee on privileges and elections of the Senate Rules Committee, manage to spend

$273.40 on “taxi fare in and around Chicago and Springfield” between November 27 and December 2, 1980, together with $270.50 on “newspapers and periodicals”?

Duffy explained that he was busy observing the recount of the presidential election returns, and that in order to keep abreast of the situation, it was necessary to do “a tremendous amount of intra-city traveling.”

He said it would have been more expensive to rent a car than to ride around in taxis, and anyway, committee employees are not allowed to put parking fees on their expense accounts.

The big phone bill, Duffy said, stemmed from the necessity of keeping Democratic and Republican officials in Washington informed of the minute-by­ minute happenings in Illinois. Every hour newspapers were coming out with new bulletins, he said, and he had to buy the newspapers to know what to tell his superiors.

House Prints Even Less

The House has a book too, but it is even less informative than the Senate’s.

The secrecy-loving House Administration Committee decided to publish one last year in the wake of a series of stories in the Knight newspapers. The expose was written by reporters Don Oberdorfer and Walter Pincus, who spent several months going through a jumble of vouchers certificates, receipts, and notations in a cramped closet in the House disbursing office.

As the newsmen were finishing their research, House officials began to get uneasy. A photographer attempting to take pictures of the vouchers was interrupted by an excited sergeant of the Capitol police, who demanded the film and closed the room because he said the records might contain “national security” information.

But Oberdorfer and Pincus had their story by that time. They revealed that dozens of expense vouchers had been altered to obscure spending of public funds for Congressmen’s liquor, music, and the hotel expenses of their wives.

During the furor that resulted from the disclosures, House Clerk Ralph Roberts permanently sealed the records from public view.

No Embarrassments

Seven months after it had been promised, the Administration Committee came out with its book. The delay, according to reports, was to make sure nobody was embarrassed by what wasn’t left out. The House book is, indeed, clinically devoid of potential embarrassments. From the 1961 version you can learn that the Foreign Affairs committee paid Eastern Air Lines $5,664 or plane tickets in a one-month period in 960, but the book doesn’t say who used the tickets or where they went.

Representative Frank Smith (D., Miss.), chairman of the House administration subcommittee which produced the book, said that he does not expect the format to change. “It cost over $30,000 to publish this report as it is,” Smith said, “and I don’t see any need for spending several thousand more for an index just to satisfy the curiosity of reporters.”

The book keys each entry to the original voucher, so theoretically the curious could go back to the original for some of the details, but a clerk in the House disbursing office said:

“You would have to get an act of Congress to see the vouchers now. They are not open. I don’t even know where they are. I presume the House Administration Committee has them.”

Julian Langston, Administration Committee clerk, said that the committee is “retaining” the vouchers. “So far as the actual inspection of them,” Langston said, “they are not available.” He added that Administration Committee Chairman Omer Burleson (D., Tex.) is “still damn mad about the bunch of lies Oberdorfer and Pincus printed about him.” The two reporters revealed that Burleson had collected $12 a day for 84 days including Saturdays, Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, while Congress was in recess in 1958. Burleson reported himself to be making election and Hatch Act investigations in his home state.

A Pattern of Secrecy

The Senate has never made its expense records public.

“The report of the Secretary of the Senate is all you are going to see,” an aide to the secretary said. “If you try to go any further than that you’re not going to get anywhere.”

This pattern of secrecy — described so often in the previous articles of this series — surrounds almost everything Congress spends on itself. Fiscal practices which would never be tolerated in an executive agency flourish on Capitol Hill.

The weird base-pay system which hides the true salary system from taxpayers, the lavish buildings, the unnecessary employees, and the hidden subsidies all add to the expense of running the legislative branch, a yearly expense that currently runs into the tens of millions of dollars.

Yet there is no official watchdog to tell the public of this extravagant use of its money.

Old Law Prevails

The General Accounting Office, which was created as an arm of Congress, to check on the expenditures of other federal agencies, takes a perfunctory look at some Congressional spending. Practically speaking, it is powerless to demand full accountings because of an old law which states that expenses certified by the Senate Rules Committee and the House Administration Committee are “declared to be conclusive upon all departments and officers of the Government.”

So when it comes to what Congress spends on itself, the normal restraints that surround federal budget-making disappear into thin air. Lobbyists do not lobby, pressure groups do not pressure, and the press — so handsomely cared for at the Capitol at taxpayers’ expense — rarely presses.

And so thus it is that the issue has been left in the lap of Congress itself, specifically in the hands of the two committees — Senate Rules and House Administration — neither of which seems about to assume any strong watchdog role as guardian of the purse strings.

It may have all been summed up in on sentence by Representative Burleson: “It doesn’t do any good to make your colleagues mad at you.”

What no one has said openly also is a major factor: What the taxpayer doesn’t know doesn’t bother him.

Copyright, 1962, by The Courier-Journal