Congressman Jim Himes (CT-4) outlined today at a press conference in Norwalk a set of priorities to restore accountability and transparency to the United States Congress. The plan he spearheaded, supported by a broad coalition of new Members of Congress, puts in place strict rules regarding earmarks, requires better accounting of expenses both from Members' offices and for congressional travel, and improves transparency across government.
"As elected officials, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, and that commitment needs to begin in the United States Congress," said Himes. "For too long, scandals and conflicts of interest have been swept under the rug, and lackluster accountability requirements have left the door open to abuse. I went to Washington to change the way this country is run, and this proposal helps make that change a reality."
At the press conference, Himes explained that little accounting is required for official trips taken as part of a Congressional Delegation (CODELs). When Himes returned from a trip to Afghanistan for oversight responsibilities associated with his position on the Homeland Security Committee, there were no instructions provided as to how or where to return $400 in per diem funds he did not use. In fact, it took Himes and his staff several weeks and nearly two dozen phone calls to determine the appropriate method to return the funds. Eventually, Himes returned the excess allowance via personal check to the State Department; however, it became evident no clear process was in place to either require or track these remittances.
"If you go on a business trip, you may be given petty cash, but you're usually required to account for every expense with receipts and reimbursement forms. When you travel with a CODEL," explained Himes, "not only is no expense reporting required, but there is no system in place to track whether or not you return excess funds. This must change."
Himes worked with other first-term Members of Congress to craft a set of policy changes that require Members of Congress to play by the same rules one would expect to follow as a regular citizen or federal employee. The polices reduce the influence of campaign contributions on federal funding and ensure that government information--whether from agencies or regarding representatives' spending--is easily accessible.
The complete package includes changes to:
* Make earmarks more transparent
* Make Members' expenses more transparent and return any unused funds
* Improve ethics investigations
* Improve public access to vital information
* Reform Congressional travel
* Minimize conflicts of interest and close the revolving door
* Allow more stringent state ethics reforms
* Enact a voluntary small donor campaign funding system
Himes has been committed to improving accountability in Congress since he was sworn into office last year. Beginning with crossing party lines over 10 times to call for ethics investigations into the tie between earmarks and campaign contributions to the strict appropriations policy he adopted in his own office to being among the first lawmakers to return campaign contributions from former Ways & Means Committee Chair Charlie Rangel, Himes has led by example.
"Whether we're fixing the economy, reforming health care, or seeking federal investment for local projects, the American people need to be able to trust their leaders to act in their best interest," said Himes. "While we have made some progress in this area, recent events have shown we need to do more. I am committed to restoring that trust."