Will UK Scandal Impact Congressional Transparency?

          Although it has not received a great deal of attention here, a major scandal has rocked the British Parliament in recent weeks.  The scandal has its roots in a request several years ago by a free-lance journalist named Heather Brooke, who used the newly enacted British Freedom of Information Act to ask for records of taxpayer-funded expenses of Members of Parliament.   To enforce her rights, Ms. Brooke was forced to go to court, where she ultimately prevailed.  Before the House of Commons actually complied with the court ruling, however, someone provided a British newspaper with a breakdown of MP expenses, which revealed what the NY Times called “a rich tale of politicians exploiting a lax system of expenses to claim a mind-boggling array of benefits.”  (My favorite is an MP named “Hogg” who was reimbursed for the cost of clearing the moat at his country home). 

            It is worth noting that although the United States has had FOIA for decades longer than Britain, our version does not apply to the legislative branch at all.  This has led some journalists to “wonder if Brooke’s work in England could come back to haunt the U.S. Congress.”  Last week Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation drew the connection between the lack of transparency in Britain and that in the U.S. Congress.  He pointed out that the Sunlight Foundation had been asking for months that the House put online the Clerk’s Quarterly Statement of Disbursements, which is currently available to the public only in hardcover volumes which can be viewed at the Legislative Resource Center or purchased from GPO.

And what do you know, Speaker Pelosi decided yesterday to send a letter to the Chief Administrative Officer of the House directing him “to publish the quarterly Statement of Disbursements for the House of Representatives in an online format at the earliest date.”  As John Wonderlich of Sunlight notes. “Speaker Pelosi’s move should be interpreted as a recognition that public information — even potentially embarrassing information about how Members spend public funds — should be truly accessible to the general public, which means online.”  One might also interpret the move as reflecting a need to show a commitment to transparency in light of what has occurred in Britain.

The fact remains, however, that American citizens who wish to obtain access to non-public information from the House or Senate cannot use FOIA for that purpose.   No doubt there are many MPs today who wish that the same were true in Britain.