Apr 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Senate secretary blows off expense disclosure reports

Illustration of a U.S. quarter coin with duct tape covering George Washington's mouth

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

U.S. Senate officials are flouting a federal law requiring the public disclosure of senators' official expenses, records show.

Why it matters: The lack of Senate expense disclosure has brought a key government transparency measure to a standstill, depriving the public of information about their representatives to which they're legally entitled. The disclosure details spending on staff salaries and other office expenses.

  • While the missing data shields expenses for all 100 senators, it puts one senator in particular in a unique political position.
  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) won his seat in a 2021 special election and faces a re-election contest this year. Georgians should already have access to nearly a year of his office's expense data. Currently, they have just a few months' worth.
  • The Senate secretary is responsible for posting the information; individual senators have no control over that disclosure. A Warnock spokesperson said the senator has complied with all that is required of him and is not an outlier.
  • “First, Warnock's office is reporting the required information,” the spokesperson said. “Second, it is not remarkable that he has the least amount of information — it's a feature of him being sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021. Finally, not one Senate office has any information beyond March 2021.”

The background: A law passed in 2009 requires the secretary of the Senate to publish semiannual reports detailing each Senate office's itemized expenses.

  • The move from paper expense reports to an online database was hailed at the time as a belated but important transparency measure.
  • Since then, reports have been published every six months on the secretary's website, consistently within the legally mandated 60-day window following the semiannual reporting periods.
  • They end in March and September.

What's happening: The secretary of the Senate hasn't posted one of those disbursement reports in nearly a year.

  • The last covered expenditures through March 2021.
  • For the first time since the reports went online, two semiannual disclosure periods have passed without any online reports on Senate disbursements.
  • Spokespeople for the secretary of the Senate did not respond to multiple inquiries from Axios.

Between the lines: A notice on the secretary's website says: "The semi-annual Report of the Secretary of the Senate for the period April 1, 2021 – September 30, 2021 is delayed and will be published as soon as possible."

  • While COVID-19 has strained Capitol Hill, two of the semiannual reports were published in October 2020 and April 2021, while the pandemic raged.

What they're saying: "Neither the House nor the Senate have been delayed significantly since we began gathering salary data in 2005," Jock Friedly, the CEO of legislative research service LegiStorm, told Axios.

  • "Until now, the disclosures have always come out like clockwork."

The big picture: The Senate expense reports are designed to provide a measure of transparency in the Senate's operations — both for the public and congressional staffers themselves.

  • Friedly noted recent staffer efforts to organize and collectively bargain over their pay and working conditions.
  • "The lack of disclosure is a violation of law but also hampers the ability of staffers to understand the scope of the problem, and how their pay compares with others," he said.
  • It also "makes it impossible for the public to understand fully how dangerous political rhetoric is driving up security costs to protect lawmakers and their staff."

Expense reports are also frequent sources for opposition researchers looking to dig into political opponents' spending habits.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with an explanation about how it's incumbent on the secretary of Senate — not individual senators — to disclose the reports supplied to it by senators. It earlier was updated with comment from a Warnock spokesperson.

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