How Much Our Congressional Members Expensed: New Reimbursement Program Facing Criticism for Lack of Transparency

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s not uncommon for members of congress to have homes in their home district and in Washington, D.C. for work. Some argue keeping up with the costs for both homes can be pricey. The Washington Post first reported that a new reimbursement program, which was quietly approved almost two years ago, aims to help House members expense some lodging, food and incidental costs while they’re on business in Washington. But the new reimbursement program is facing criticism. Some worry the new program could be abused because it lacks transparency. 

It’s no secret our nation’s capital is one of the most expensive areas to live in the US. Rent Cafe averages about 24-hundred dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment in D.C.  

In part of a December 2022 report on modernizing congress, it outlined concerns about financial barriers that keep people from running for congress. The report states members get paid 174-thousand dollars a year, which is way above the median household income, but they also have to maintain two homes: one in their home district and one in Washington D.C. The report states members haven’t given themselves a raise since 2009 and suggested a reimbursement program as an alternative to raising their salaries.  

A recent Washington Post article revealed nearly six-million dollars from this new taxpayer-funded program reimbursed more than 300 House members to help them cover the cost of some lodging and food while they are on official business in D.C.  

Out of the 400-plus members in the House, Representative Jack Bergman (R- MI) expensed the most, totaling to $44,079. He expensed a little more than $32-thousand on lodging and nearly $12-thousand on meals and incidentals. The Washington Post calculated on average members were reimbursed about $18-thousand dollars.   

In a database from The Washington Post, it shows Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez expensed a total of $33,543. Lodging was $24,023 and meals and incidentals $9,520.

USVI Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett expensed a total of $21,034. She only expensed lodging.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, Members of Congress have not received a cost-of-living or salary adjustment since 2009.  In the 117th Congress, the House passed a rule to allow members to be reimbursed for ordinary and necessary expenses associated with official travel between a Member’s duty station (in Congresswoman Plaskett’s case, the Virgin Islands) and Washington D.C., as well as while on official business in Washington, D.C., subject to certain limitations.  Congresswoman Plaskett adheres to the member reimbursement policy included in the Members’ Congressional Handbook and has elected to only be reimbursed for per diem lodging for those days in which Congress is in session. That per diem rate is determined by the federal General Services Administration. With regard to the lack of requirement to show proof of receipts, the Committee on House Administration states clearly in their resolution (see here) the reasons for this, one of which is the potential security risk for Members of Congress and the possible jeopardization of Members’ personally identifiable information (i.e. address and other identifying details) being made public. Congresswoman Plaskett does keep a receipt of her lodging costs with her House administrative personnel (in case an audit should ever be necessary), but does not make that information public for personal security reasons (she has had numerous threats to her and her family’s safety).”

Tionee Scotland, Communications Director for Congresswoman Plaskett

But about a fourth of House members, like Rep. Mike Kelly (R- PA), did not file for any reimbursements. We asked him why.  

“I receive a salary and we always ask people you have to live within your means and you gotta be careful about that because there are other people who say we need to be supplemented,” said Rep. Kelly. “This is not a criticism of any other member of congress it’s just part of who I’ve always been.” 

But this program is facing criticism because it does not require proof of receipts.  

“One of the ways you earn trust is by providing receipts when you have an expense,” said Noah Bookbinder, President and CEO of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “You’re getting reimbursed for just like most of us in our jobs if we were to spend money, we have to be reimbursed. We have to show receipts that it’s a legitimate expense. That’s just commonsense and congress ought to have that too.” 

According to documents provided to us, the program’s administrators did not require receipts for a few reasons. One: it would reduce the significant administrative burden on the administrative staff; and two: it would minimize any potential security risks and jeopardize personally identifiable information of members. CREW believes a program like this should be more transparent. 

“I think the policy is a good one in the sense that we want regular Americans to be able to serve in congress you shouldn’t have to be a millionaire or a billionaire to serve in congress, o a program that makes it easier for people to maintain the two households they need to be able to be in congress,” said Bookbinder. “I don’t think members of congress should be attacked for taking money for this program because we do want people who aren’t wealthy to take advantage of a program like this but we have also said adjustments like this are appropriate to make the program better and create more trust with the American people.” 

According to The Washington Post, the program does have some boundaries. If members own a home in the area they can’t use it to be repaid for principal or interest on their mortgages and they can only get reimbursed for days they’re here in DC or flying to DC.  

We reached out to Gonzalez’s office but did not hear back.