WSJ Continues to Hype Congressional Expenses Non-Story

I’ve been somewhat baffled by the Journal’s repeated page-one stories on congressional expenses.

So far they’ve turned up just about nothing, but the paper has hyped them like they’ve turned up huge scoops about to bring the fall of a government, a la the mess going on in the UK right now. I don’t think so.

Basically, the Journal has written three page one stories about how congressional expenses aren’t reported online. Now, they’re disclosed, mind you, in print. But they’re not on the Internet and Obama campaigned for online transparency in his administration, so for some reason, even though there’s that whole separation of powers thing, Congress is bad for not putting its reports online immediately.

The policy of offering only paper records was in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s call for more transparency, such as his promise to post online spending details of the government’s $787 billion stimulus plan. The House and Senate recently passed rules requiring online posting of documents on travel and lobbying.

Today, the paper runs a victory lap on page one because Congress has agreed to put them online.

All the expenses the Journal has reported on so far have been legal. Today, it focuses on the Nancy Pelosi flowers scandal:

Mrs. Pelosi, for instance, kept her leadership office stocked with fresh flowers, but she sacked her high-end Georgetown florist in December, switching to a cheaper shop.

This is the Speaker of the House—two heartbeats from the presidency, you know. Excuse her for having flowers in her office, where heads of state and the like come to meet. The Journal doesn’t even tell us if this is a $100-a-day flower habit or a $10,000-a-day one. I’m guessing since we’re not told, it’s closer to the former.

And Minority Leader John Boehner has increased his spending by 17 percent from a year ago. He reasons that he needed to beef up his staff to fight a government controlled by Democrats. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Look, we’re all for transparency, and it’s great that these expenses are going online, but three page one stories is big-time overkill.

The most scandalous thing the series has turned up was in the first page-one story when it reported that Rep. Alcee Hastings expensed a $24,000 Lexus lease to ride around his home district.

Nice, but page one?

Even that’s not necessarily too out of the ordinary, however gauche, as the paper got around to explaining the following day:

About 130 House lawmakers, out of 435, spent $82,000 each month leasing cars for their offices in 2007, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis. The average office spent $640 a month on leases that year.

Other expenses called out in the first story were $22 for a cellphone holder and $81 for plants. If those are two of the best anecdotes it can find, that means there’s not much of a story here.

Sometimes as journalists you’ve got a really good idea for a story that’s just got to turn up something, but then it doesn’t and you either don’t write anything or you bury 400 words inside somewhere. You don’t create a story with page-one hype and little to back it up. That’s what tabloids do.

You can smell more than a whiff of Rupert on these stories.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.