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Hill Life & People

House officer, research caucus spending to go public

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The Board of Internal Economy changed the House bylaws in June, pooling IT and translation budgets, and mandating transparency for House officer spending.

Members of the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy, from left, including Speaker Geoff Regan, former government House leader Dominic LeBlanc, and Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen, decided in June to change the spending and transparency rules for House officers and research caucuses. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright, Rachel Aiello
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House leaders, whips, the Speaker, and other top players in the House of Commons will have to publicly disclose their spending, with the first report due next summer, thanks to changes made by the Board of Internal Economy in a June meeting.

The changes were made as part of the board’s “ongoing commitment to transparency and accountability to Canadians,” and will apply to House officers and national caucus research offices, according to a memo issued by House Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.) July 28.

Currently, only MPs must publicly disclose how they spend their money, in quarterly reports released by the House of Commons on its website. The updated rules require that House officers and research offices publish one report for the 2017-2018 fiscal year no later than the end of next June. From then on, they must begin publishing reports every quarter.

House officers include the Speaker and the deputy Speaker; the House leaders, whips, and national caucus chairs for each recognized party (currently the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP); the chair, deputy chair, and assistant deputy chair of committees of the whole; the Member designated as responsible for each party’s research office (typically, the party leader); and any Member who is a former prime minister.

The new transparency requirement was included among a series of amendments to the House of Commons’ Members By-law, which outlines the rules around spending for Members of Parliament. Some of those changes, including combining separate budgets for translation, IT, and other services into a single fund for each caucus, were retroactively brought into effect beginning April 1 of this year.

The Board of Internal Economy itself, which controls Members’ spending and is like a kind of city council for Parliament Hill, is opening up to the public this fall, after long operating behind closed doors and under terms of strict secrecy for its members. Making the board’s meetings public—except for private sessions on subjects including security and some human resources issues—will fulfill a Liberal election campaign promise.

The more disclosure, the better: ex-House officer Reynolds

Every year, House officers are given set budgets, based on a formula approved by the Board of Internal Economy. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, for instance, the government whip gets $916,196, the Conservative whip gets $601,033, and the NDP whip gets $344,749. Caucus chairs get $137,892 (government), $102,300 (Conservative), and $79,279 (NDP). The Liberal caucus research office gets just over $3-million, while the Conservative office gets about $2.8-million, and the NDP gets $1.7-million for research purposes.

The Hill Times contacted the offices of several House officers and members of the Board of Internal Economy late last week, but did not receive hear back about the impetus for the changes.

The NDP supported the changes, according to Rob Sutherland, chief of staff to NDP Whip Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet (Hochelaga, Que.).

The NDP has been locked in a legal battle since 2014 over an order from the Board of Internal Economy to repay $2.7-million in staff costs incurred when it put publicly-paid research staff into offices in Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto, rented by the party itself.

John Reynolds, a former House leader, whip, and acting party leader for the Canadian Alliance, said he believed the disclosure requirements were a positive move.

“The more disclosure you have, the better,” said Mr. Reynolds, who is now working for McMillan LLP. “Everybody has a right to know.”

The expenditure reports from national caucus research offices, or at least the Liberal office, are unlikely to reveal careless spending, said John Delacourt, who ran communications in the Liberal Research Bureau until the end of last year, when he moved on to do public affairs work for Ensight.

Research offices exist to provide support for the caucus, though part of their work is devoted to digging up dirt on their political opposition.

Most of the staff in the Liberal Research Bureau have been there since the days the Liberal Party was in opposition, he said, and as such are keenly aware of the line between appropriate and inappropriate spending, having spent that time “constantly” on the lookout for spending slip-ups by the governing Conservatives.

Changes could make big purchases easier: Boudria

Changes to the Members By-law were also designed to make it easier for House officers in the same party to share and manage resources. Previously, each party was given access to several separate budgets to support their work in the House: one for information technology, one for caucus translation services, and one for national caucus meetings. Now, all of those funds will be wrapped into a single budget, supervised by the whip of each party. The total amount of money provided by the House will not change.

“The changes to policies were made to provide House officers additional flexibility to carry out their parliamentary functions and to help House officers manage their operations more efficiently,” said a statement from House spokesperson Kori Ghergari.

The new rules could make it much easier for House officers to pool their money in any given year towards big purchases that may have previously been restricted under one budget, and would be hard to break up into smaller stages, such as IT hardware or software upgrades, said Don Boudria, a former Liberal House leader who now works at Hill & Knowlton Canada.

It would also lessen any incentive to find things to spend money on towards the end of the fiscal year, when one of the multiple budgets had been under-utilized that year, he said.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Current House officers

Speaker—Geoff Regan, Liberal

Deputy Speaker, chair of committees of the whole—Bruce Stanton, Conservative

Assistant deputy Speaker, deputy chair of committees of the whole—Carol Hughes, NDP

Assistant deputy Speaker and assistant deputy chair of committees of the whole—Anthony Rota, Liberal

Government House leader—Bardish Chagger

Chief government whip—Pablo Rodriguez

Liberal caucus chair—Francis Scarpaleggia

Conservative House leader—Candice Bergen

Conservative whip—Mark Strahl

Conservative caucus chair—David Sweet

NDP House leader—Murray Rankin

NDP whip—Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet

NDP caucus chair—Daniel Blaikie

MP responsible for the Conservative research office—Andrew Scheer

MP responsible for the Liberal research office—Justin Trudeau

MP responsible for the NDP research office—Thomas Mulcair

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