Sunday, May 20, 2012

Abe Lincoln ... on the wrong side in the "mileage" scandal

As a first-term congressman from Illinois in 1848, Abraham Lincoln found himself on the wrong side of a scandal regarding reimbursement for travel expenses to and from Washington and his home state. To be fair, he broke no laws and wasn’t alone, but the episode reinforced the view of many, even a century and a half ago, that Congress is wasteful and possibly corrupt.

Another new member of Congress at the time was Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who was elected to serve only four months at the end of an unexpired term. Greeley soon discovered that in the previous session (during which he was not yet a member himself), almost all members of Congress based their travel expenses on the “usually traveled route,” which was usually much longer than the most-direct mail route – the route between post offices. So for each member of the U.S. House of Representatives and each member of the U.S. Senate, Greeley published in the Tribune the amount of travel funds each received, how much each would have received based on the shortest postal route, and the difference between these two figures.

For his travel expenses to and from his home state and Washington, Lincoln was reportedly reimbursed $1,300.08 for 1,626 miles, or $676.80 more than he would have received for the most-direct route of 780 miles. For the Senate and House together in that session, the total overage came to $62,105.20 for 77,632 miles, the Tribune story concluded. (Curiously, six Congressmen were reimbursed for less than the most-direct postal route for their travels.)

Background information that accompanied the published list in the Tribune was written personally by Greeley and noted that the reimbursements were not illegal, but suggested that the system was highly susceptible to abuse. The “law expressly says that each shall receive eight dollars for every 20 miles traveled in coming to and returning from Congress ‘by the usually traveled’ route, and of course if the route usually traveled from California to Washington is around the Cape Horn – or the members of that Embryo state choose to think that it is – they will each be entitled to charge some $12,000 mileage per session accordingly.”

“We assume that each man has charged precisely what the law allows him … but we insist that the law not continue to allow such charges as these. Is not the distinction a clear one?” Greeley’s article asked.

Many members of Congress were outraged by the publication of the list, and the mileage issue was the talk of Washington – not to mention the chambers of the House and Senate, where discussions became heated – for many days. Greeley biographer Lurton Dunham Ingersoll wrote in his 1873 book The Life of Horace Greeley that the “reform of the law which he had in view was defeated, but ‘the usual routes of travel’ were henceforth very much less ‘circuitous’ than they had been, and some years afterward the rate of mileage was reduced by 50 percent, and constructive mileage utterly prohibited.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sad to see that after all this time, Congress and the Senate are still playing their games at the expense of others.