Friday, July 10, 2009

Much Ado About Trivial Congress Expenses

There should be a journalistic equivalent of the Razzies, a kind of an anti-Pullitzer Prize, awarded for the worst of the prominent media stories. For this I'd like to nominate a series of front page Wall Street Journal (WSJ) articles on Congressional travel and other expenses that have been appearing since mid-May. These have obviously been inspired by the British MP expense controversy that should have been a non-event if only the public were more astute. But it isn't, and the resultant scandal ended the political careers of many MPs and Ministers.

Of all papers, business-oriented ones like the WSJ should make the case as I did about compensation for US lawmakers being substantially boosted in line with their responsibilities. They should also have a public funding option for their election campaigns if they agree to forego private fundraising through campaign contributions. Even at salaries of $1 - $2 million annually and an equivalent amount for election expenses the annual taxpayer tab will be $3 billion. That's money well spent to reduce lawmaker vulnerability to petty Abramoff style inducements and lobbyist influence. It's a natural extension of campaign finance reform efforts, for which McCain and Feingold deserve a lot of credit even if they've had very limited success.

As I've said before, the WSJ has instead tried to whip up a UK style news storm about lawmaker "splurges" in the US. To some extent it has succeeded. Starting with its May 16 article, Expensing It, the US Way" the WSJ has played up travel and office expenses of at most a few thousand dollars per individual Congressmen that also happen to conform to all the rules and are available for public scrutiny in hard copy. But the WSJ wants to go further and sought full online disclosure of every expense detail. After its strident articles and reporting of May 20, May 30, June 1, June 3, Nancy Pelosi decided on June 4 to require all expense details to be posted online, with the Senate promising to follow suit.

All this detracts from the lawmakers focusing on infinitely more serious matters facing the country. Such journalism reflects poorly on a prestigious publication like the WSJ, and yet it hasn't stopped there. It has continued with these front page expose's including on July 2 highlighting the foreign travel tab of lawmakers of a whopping $13 million in 2008 (costing the average American 4 cents) and a July 3 article about such official records understating these expenses. Even so, the listed expenses are so trivial as to be laughable, but politicians know too well that they shouldn't over-estimate the wisdom of (at least a significant proportion of) the readers.

Ridicule by another part of the media may be the best way to stop such cheap and irrelevant reporting. Any takers, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?

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