House panel restricts members’ office spending

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The congressional committee that oversees the office budgets of House members has unanimously changed the rules to limit reimbursement for furniture decorating, use of charter aircraft and other travel.

The new rules arrive following the scandal this year involving now-former Republican Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois, who redecorated his congressional office in the style of the British television show “Downton Abbey” and accepted questionable reimbursements for charter flights and automobile mileage.

Rep. Candice Miller, the Harrison Township Republican who chairs the House Administration Committee, said in an interview that the changes weren't targeting any particular member but “in light of various incidents, we looked at that and thought we needed to act.”

“We just wanted to ensure we’re keeping tight accountability and making everything transparent,” said Miller, who is retiring after this term.

“I’m leaving here, of course, but I want to make sure for future Congresses that we’ve made it very clear. It really just helps the process, so people don’t make a mistake.”

The updated rules require members to seek approval from the Administration Committee for furniture and decorating expenses in their district offices of more than $5,000 an item. The committee also clarified that members may not use their taxpayer-funded accounts to decorate their Washington offices, Miller said.

The revisions say charter or private aircraft may not be used when flying to or from Washington. It was infrequent, but “we did have people who were doing that,” Miller said.

Members may use charter or private travel within their districts where no suitable commercial service is available; however, flight itineraries exceeding $7,500 will now require written approval by the committee. The panel said charter and private aircraft should be used “sparingly.”

The revisions also clarify that office accounts may only be reimbursed for use personal vehicles – not for vehicles owned or leased by a campaign or political action committee. Only miles driven are reimbursable, not fuel purchases.

Schock resigned March 31 after a series of revelations regarding his alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars, including his $40,000 “Downton” decor, as well as billing the government for 90,000 more miles than his car traveled.

Schock also came under scrutiny for private flights he took from the Washington area to, in once instance, Peoria, Illinois, for a Chicago Bears game. A grand jury in Springfield, Illinois, is investigating how Schock spent official and campaign funds, according to news reports.

Miller said the committee’s resolution will also institute greater transparency in the disclosing of expenditures. For instance, member office will begin itemizing spending that falls under the broad category of “travel subsistence,” which includes hotel stays and flights.

Her committee asked the chief administrative officer of the House of Representatives to propose a plan to convert the register of disclosed expenses to an online format that’s both searchable and sortable.

The commitee’s reforms were recommended by a bipartisan review group appointed six months ago and led by Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois, and Zoe Lofgren, D-California.

“There is much merit in these changes in procedure,” Lofgren said in a statement. “Today is a solid start, but there remains more work to do, and I’m pleased that Chairman Miller is considering further meetings to examine these additional steps.”

The changes apply to the House members’ Congressional Handbook and went into effect upon the committee’s passage.

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