Errant European

The real Parliament Hotel (Cape Town)
The real Parliament Hotel (Cape Town)

Gluttons for punishment can check out the Guardian’s special page on the furore over parliamentary profligacy in the UK. There’s everything from toilet seats to televisions.

Others, recognizing the utility of parliamentary democracy as long as it does not go the way of the Roman Senate, might want to check into the “Parliament Hotel,” my suggestion for reigning in costs and giving elected representatives a better sense of being on the job, not on the take.

(Image thanks to the real Parliament Hotel in Cape Town South Africa, where Pretoria and Cape Town share in hosting the seat of government – the cabinet has to shuttle back and forth when Parliament is in session, perhaps not the best example of efficiency, but it does spread the wealth.)

So here is my proposal for Parliaments from London to Luanda, by way of Capitol Hill: find a decent hotel near your national assembly, buy it with stimulus funds, renovate it into adequate but Spartan suites, and make your congresspeople, MPs, senators, or deputies stay there when parliament is in session. Presumably they are representing constituents from a home district, so that’s where they should have their home. But when they are in _______ (fill in the name of your capital city), they stay in their parliamentary hotel suite.

I’m not talking about a fold-down bed in the office (in this season of European Parliament elections, French TV showed an MEP in his minuscule office, pulling down what I swear was a couchette-sized “bed” for those late-night sessions). No, Hotel Parliament would provide a spacious suite where the elected official could relax, even set up a kids’ room for when they come to see the big city, and grab a snack at the in-house cafeteria when she doesn’t feel like cooking).

Unfortunately for the Mother of Parliaments, all the attention on the expenses row has somehow created the impression that UK MPs are the worst offenders. The BBC provides a nice, if limited, comparison of parliamentary perks in a number of European countries, where Italy comes out – again – as the most generous (they are already the highest paid MEPs) to its deputies:

Political journalists Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo have exposed the excesses of the political class in a new book, The Caste: How Italian Politicians Have Become Untouchable.

How about the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, collectively known as Congress? Ouch. When you have to have detailed sets of rules about “Officially-connected travel paid by a private source” and “Travel unrelated to official duties and paid for by a private source,” you know that you’re entering ambiguous territory. That terrain is called lobbying, and I daresay that the current imbroglio in Britain over reimbursement for moat-cleaning would pale in comparison to a full disclosure by Americans in Congress.

“Many Members travel home more than 40 times a year,” says the helpful Congressional Management Foundation, which provides an eye-opening budget guide for the freshman Congressperson. Try doing that – plus hiring staff for Washington and home district offices – on the average $1.3 million (2005 figures) in public money allotted and you’ll understand just one of the reasons that American politicians look for help from lobbyists. We know, of course, that such assistance does not come for free.

So, while “Hotel Parliament” would not solve all the dilemmas of parliamentary expenses, it would at least remove one excuse for all these contraventions of arcane rules. Make sure the hotel security people keep lobbyists out of the lobby.

(Note: this post first appeared in my other blog, “Avuncular American“)

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