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Taxpayer Funded Reimbursement Program Lacks Transparency

In 2023, more than 300 lawmakers were reimbursed at least $5.8 million for food and lodging on their yearly business trip to Washington. Their expenses were covered under a new program funded by taxpayer dollars that does not require them to provide receipts for their purchases. The program was introduced in 2022 with bipartisan support and the intention of aiding lawmakers to cover the costs of their primary residence in their respective districts and homes in Washington. However, without requiring lawmakers enrolled in the program to provide receipts critics believe the program is easy to abuse.

The program, although lenient, has a few simple rules: First, lawmakers are prohibited from claiming reimbursement for the principal or interest of their home mortgages. Second, lawmakers may only be reimbursed for the days they spend working or flying to Washington. Third, lawmakers may not ask for excessive reimbursement. Lastly, the program caps daily spending which is determined by the General Services Administration. However, without proper record keeping, there is no way to tell that the reimbursement money is used exclusively for food and lodging.

More than 300 of the U.S. House's 435 members participated in the reimbursement program last year with an allowance of up to $34,000 per member. While some members of Congress with homes in the area chose not to participate in the program, some members with million-dollar homes in the area did participate, such as Rep. Nancy Mace and Rep. Eric Swalwell. Although lawmakers who are homeowners in the area are prohibited from using reimbursements to cover mortgage payments, they are allowed to use it for expenses such as taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities and other ancillary costs. However, this is not foolproof as Nancy Mace was reimbursed nearly $23,000 all while allegedly advertising her $1.6 million townhome in Washington as a short-term rental and allegedly encouraging her staff to spend the maximum daily reimbursement cap regardless of her actual expenses. 

The member reimbursement program was suggested by the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as an alternative to raising members' salaries. Members of Congress make $174,000 annually, more than twice the median U.S. household income. With that, members are expected to maintain two homes, one in Washington and another in their respective districts. Although members often feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of upkeeping two homes and traveling between cities, Congress has not pursued a salary raise since 2009 because it's considered politically unpalatable.

This isn't the first sneaky taxpayer-funded program that government officials have abused, and there is skepticism around the reason for Congress adopting this program as an alternative to raising their salaries. Americans already don’t confide in Congress' financial intentions and don't believe Congress has citizens' best financial interests at heart. In fact, 81% of Americans believe that members of Congress do a bad job of keeping their personal financial interests separate from their work in Congress. 

The Congress reimbursement program is a sneaky attempt to fraudulently misuse American tax dollars and should cease to exist. I believe it is distasteful for Congress to raise their salary while the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25. The argument that this reimbursement program is necessary because Congress members must cover expenses while on work trips is invalid because there are no federal laws that require employers to reimburse employees for work-related expenses. Lastly, the argument that this program is necessary to maintain two properties is ridiculous considering one Congress member makes nearly double the median household income, the average congressman has a net worth of $1 million and homeownership is steadily declining among American citizens.

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author.


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