Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Panic at the Parliament

I woke this morning to my clock radio blasting some BBC commentators hailing the “revolution” unfolding this week in the UK. Nothing jolts you out of bed like a little social unrest! While all this talk about how the expenses controversy is going to completely change the way the British government works may be a bit of hyperbole, after hearing a first-hand account of yesterday’s tumultuous events from The Times’ parliamentary sketch writer Ann Treneman last night, it does seem that, just maybe, a little political earthquake is indeed unfolding this week in Westminster.

Treneman had stopped by a gathering of young journalists in Soho, fresh from watching the dramatic resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin. The announcement was the result of increasing demands from a paniced parliament in the face of a steady drip-drip-drip of news about the ‘second home allowance’ expenses British MPs have claimed over the past four years. The revelations, being published in the Telegraph newspaper, are the result of a years-long effort by journalists to get access to the data under the newly-enacted Freedom of Information Act in the UK (sidenote – not called a “foya” here, but instead an “F.O.I.” – crazy Brits!). The parliament fought tooth and nail to resist releasing the list of expenses claims, a fight led by the Speaker of the House, who oversees the finances department that approves the expenses. But in the end the media won, the expenses are being published, and resignations could turn from the trickle seen thus far to an avalanche. Already it looks like Gordon Brown could lose a big chunk of his front-benchers, and the other parties seem equally culpable. Tory leader David Cameron called an emergency press conference early in the week to compel all members of his party to immediately write checks paying back the taxpayer for their expenses, or be immediately expelled from the party.

But no matter howThe Speaker of the House position in the British House of Commons is not akin to its American equivalent, a position currently occupied by Nancy Pelosi. The British speaker is in charge of the functioning of the house but not its policy, deciding when and for how long people can speak and running the everyday procedural minutia of the Houses of Parliament, in which he lives. It’s generally considered to be a neutral role above politics. But as the shocking revelations about expenses came pouring in, there was increasing pressure for parliament to do something, anything, to quell the growing tide of public anger. They chose to take the speaker’s head on a platter to the bleating mob. In reality, this is unlikely to satisfy them.

Through the allowance designed for work-related expenses for the MPs to maintain a second home in London (in addition to their house in their home constituency), it’s been revealed that MPs have claimed thousands of pounds for big-screen TVs, remodelling, vibrating chairs, Persian rugs and even “moat maintenance”. In the most egregious cases, several MPs have been shown to have made a profit off the taxpayer by expensing the mortgage on one home, then switching the “second home” status to their other house, selling the first home and making a tidy profit.

American Comparison

From my vantage point I can’t decide which I find more absurd, the ridiculous claims made by a minority (the British media seems to have lost this detail) of MPs, or the ridiculous system of remuneration this country has designed for its governing officials. The trouble really started back when the last Conservative government, unpopular and heading for a likely election defeat in the mid ‘90s, didn’t have the political courage to give MPs a necessary inflationary pay raise. So they instead invented a clandestine system of expenses for MPs to pay for their accommodation in London. MPs today make £64,766, not exactly poverty level but certainly not enough to maintain two homes. Compare this to the $174,000 (£120,000) made by their counterparts across the pond in Washington. And here’s where my inevitable American comparison begins.

I have to say I’ve learned about the second home allowance system here with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity. It’s a little confusing to me why all of the MPs need a London home at all. This is a (comparatively) tiny country, and most of its citizens live in the Southeast region around London. Certainly at least a third of the MPs live within a distance at which it is not unreasonable to expect them to commute in three or four days a week. Yet these MPs, even some of the ones who represent London, have actually been charging taxpayers for a second home!

In the US congressmen and women represent constituencies literally thousands of miles from Washington. In fact the nation’s capital doesn’t even have a voting member of congress (as it is a district and not part of any state), so unlike London there isn’t a single voting congressman who lives and works in the same city (compare that the UK – where 73 out of the 646 MPs represent London).

But despite the geographic distances that all 535 American congressmen and senators have to travel to be in Washington, guess how many of their Washington homes are covered by the US taxpayer? Zero. There is no such thing as a “second home allowance” in the US. Instead, US congressmen must pay for their DC residences out of their own pocket. If they want a nice second home in DC and they have the private financial resources to do it, they’re welcome to. But most opt for makeshift accommodation in DC which they rent, not own. In fact many congressmen live together in modest apartments. The most famous example is the four high-powered senators Chuck Schumer, William Delahunt, Richard Durbin, and George Miller that share a house together.

The only items US congressmen are able to expense from the taxpayer are costs for their offices, not their homes. This would include their constituency offices in their home state, the personnel to run them, and postal charges for official business. All of those expenses are available to public scrutiny.

Now granted, politics in the US is big business in a way that it is not in the UK. Quite a few members of the US Congress were millionaires before they entered office, as increasingly that is the kind of money required to get one elected in America. Rather than amassing their fortunes from the taxpayer, US politicians often amass them from corporations in the form of campaign contributions. And everyone knows that the time a US congressman really makes money is once he leaves office and takes a lucrative position at a lobbying firm, using his connections and the rule allowing all former congressmen access to the house and senate floors. But efforts to fix these issues are currently underway by the Obama administration, including a mandatory waiting period of several years before an exiting congressman can work for a lobbying firm.

Today a new system is being debated in the House of Commons that would reform the expenses system, but its hard to see how any reform can work without a pay increase for the MPs. With the toxic atmosphere toward parliament on the part of the public and the media at the moment, its hard to see how any such pay raise could be voted in. Yet as the Times’ Daniel Finkelstein pointed out yesterday, it is counter-intuitive that the public seems to be, “looking at the MPs we've got, deciding they are all inadequate and determining that therefore we should be paying them less.” As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.


Steve S. said...

Don't forget the douchebag congressmen in Washington who live in their offices. Some of the representatives in question pass this off as frugality, rather than what it is, sponging off the taxpayer for free room and board.

Dave Keating said...

ha, I've never heard that any congressmen live in their offices!?! Who specifically?

Steve S. said...

Jason Chaffetz from Utah is one, (this made news in January).

Dave Keating said...


David S H said...

Living in the office was a widespread habit in the European Union for some time, thankfully the publicity meant it became frowned on.