Small Change

The Wall Street Journal team that’s been looking into the use and abuse of Congressional perks has a story today that puts the petit back into petty corruption.

Here’s the scoop from reporters Brody Mullins and T.W. Farnam: lawmakers traveling overseas are given cash per diems of up to $250 a day in local currency. (And note that the sum is often well under the maximum.) Unused funds are technically supposed to be returned at the end of each trip, but many instead blow it on souvenirs or pocket the money.

Lawmakers who said they sometimes keep excess funds said the amounts were small. “I won’t deny that sometimes I have a little left, but it’s not much—maybe 80, 90, or 100 dollars,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.).

Yep: There could be a whole Benjamin on the line here, folks.

The Journal was unable to figure out how much of this money is being wasted—seems there are no reporting requirements. But it can’t be all that much. The paper estimates that over the last two years all 435 House members cumulatively received just $375,000 to $625,000 in per diems. And some of that money—maybe even most of it—must have been legitimately spent.

Yes, waste is waste, and rule breaking is rule breaking. And The Wall Street Journal’s report certainly adds to impressions that our representatives are too willing to squeeze privileges from their tax-funded posts. Requiring disclosure and accounting of the per diems would probably go a long way towards draining this swamp.

But it’s a very very shallow swamp, given the vast sums of money that a single congressman can misappropriate through, say, a transportation earmark or a narrowly tailored contract.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.