Congressional Mileage Scandal (1840s Edition)

While Rep. Aaron Schock was making headlines last week, resigning Congress amid reports he had overcharged taxpayers for more in mileage reimbursements than his vehicle had on the odometer, ProPublica published a fascinating article about how government records were used to uncover another congressional mileage reimbursement scandal more than 166 years ago.  The article details how newspaper publisher and one-term Congressman Horace Greeley made headlines with an investigative report showing how numerous Congress members were receiving generous mileage reimbursements for distances much farther than their districts were away from Washington DC.  In an amusing coincidence,  Greeley's 1848 investigation found Abraham Lincoln--who once represented the same congressional district as Rep. Schock--to be among the most over-reimbursed, having received "some $677 in excess mileage — more than $18,700 today — among the House’s worst." 

Here's ProPublica's explanation of how Greeley conducted the mileage analysis back in 1848:

By the middle of the 1800s, Congressmen’s compensation for travel to and from their districts had been an unsuccessful but simmering reform target for years. The law provided for a 40-cent per-mile mileage reimbursement, and computed the distance “by the usually travelled route.” after taking his seat, Greeley got a look at the schedule listing every congressman’s mileage and was shocked by the sums. To Greeley, the disbursements were a wasteful relic of an earlier time, when travel to and from the far-flung reaches of the United States would have been a costly, bruising affair. The 40-cent mileage had been calculated decades earlier to match a pre-1816 congressman’s pay rate of $8 a day, assuming he could travel a mere 20 miles per day. However, thanks to steamships and the increasing prevalence of trains, travelers could go far faster than that.

Greeley saw it as an outrageous waste of the taxpayer’s money, and deployed his newspaper to correct that wrong. “If the route usually travelled from California to Washington is around Cape Horn — or the Members from that embryo State shall choose to think it is — they will each be entitled to charge some $12,000 Mileage per session accordingly.”

Rather than simply opining against it, he conceived and published a data-journalism project that, in form if not in execution, would be very much at home in a newsroom today. He asked one of his reporters, Douglas Howard, a former postal clerk, to use a U.S. Post Office book of mail routes to calculate the shortest path from each congressman’s district to the Capitol, and compared those distances with each congressman’s mileage reimbursements. On Dec. 22, 1848, with Greeley now simultaneously its editor and a brand new congressman from New York, the Tribune published a story and a table in two columns of agate type. The table listed each congressman by name with the mileage he received, the mileage the postal route would have granted him and the difference in cost between them.

The whole article is well worth a read, and provides some interesting discussion of what Greeley got right and wrong.  Also ProPublica has reprinted Greeley's original story from 1848, available here.