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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Getting pay data like pulling teeth

Telegraph Editorial

For evidence of why Congress has a lower approval rating than polygamy and pornography, look no further than New Hampshire’s Capitol Hill representatives.

For nearly three months, The Telegraph has been unable to pry from the state’s congressional representatives or their minions straightforward and current information on their staffs’ salaries. What is a routine function for towns, cities and the state is apparently a task akin to harnessing nuclear fusion for Congress.

It seemed like such a simple question when in December we asked Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte and Reps. Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta to provide their staffs’ salaries. It is, after all, an issue of public interest to the people who pay those salaries with their taxes. You would have thought we were asking for the keys to the Fort Knox gold bullion repository.

A letter responding to our salary request signed by all four press secretaries/communication directors pointed us to two official websites that lump all of the expenditures for each body into two unwieldy and mind-numbing documents.

The Senate version weighs in at 2,314 pages, while the House version is a whopping 2,848. Now, you don’t need to be a certified public accountant to decipher these documents, but it helps.

The letter also suggested a third website that promised “the only searchable database of congressional expenditures.” Access to that more user-friendly information costs from $29.99 for three days of access to $595 for one year.

Why are our congressional representatives promoting a private business for the access to information that should be provided to the public in an easy-to-understand form for free?

Because the Senate reports office expenditures twice a year and the House four times a year – both after the fact. It’s impossible to accurately determine any staffer’s current salary.

When we asked for the current salaries, the silence was deafening – 14 unreturned telephone calls in one week and then the letter containing the Orwellian justification for the obfuscation: “The Senate and House disbursement reports are the sole official, uniform records of Senate and House expenditures. Thus, providing this information in any other format would render it unofficial and potentially inconsistent with that of other offices.”

As public opinion polls indicate, most Americans believe Congress lives by double standards. The rules average citizens have to follow aren’t always applied to congressmen and senators.

This breeds anger, contempt and distrust. And when efforts are made to hold Congress equally accountable, the reaction from Washington is to insult Americans’ intelligence, such as New Hampshire’s representatives did by suggesting that to release information in any other way than in lockstep with every other office would render it inaccurate.

Nonsense. Shaheen, Ayotte, Bass and Guinta all know what they are paying their staffers right now; they just don’t want it to be public.

In the end, that’s not an affront to the newspaper, but to New Hampshire residents.