The Mileage of Congress
Published in The New York Tribune, Dec. 22, 1848
In the mid-1800s, Horace Greeley was the popular and controversial editor of The New York Tribune. For a few months starting in late 1848 he was also a congressman from New York. During that time, he produced this investigative data story, which accuses Abraham Lincoln, among many others, of taking too much money for mileage to and from the Capitol. Related Story »
The Mileage of Congress
The following transcripts of the Mileage, or compensation of Members of the present Congress for travelling to and from Washington by reason of their attendance at the last Session, has been obtained and prepared for The Tribune, not without considerable delay and difficulty. The schedule of the House was open to us, and no objection made to its use; but the Secretary of the Senate refused to permit a transcript of the Mileage of that illustrious body to be taken, even on the requisition of a Member of the House, and we were constrained to apply to the Secretary of Treasury, certifying that it was wanted as the basis of action in the House; and then our reporter was tossed about from bureau to bureau of the Treasury Buildings for some time before he could obtain a sight of the document in question. But we have it at last.
In the following tables, we have copied from the records the name of each Member of Congress at the last Session, the number of Miles charged by him as the distance travelled in coming to Congress, with the amount of Mileage therefor, (the amount charged for coming and going inclusive,) to which we have appended the number of miles which each Member respectively actually lives from Washington by the nearest post-route, as set down in the last Official list of Post-Offices with their several distances from Washington; and the last column of figures gives the amount which each Member has received from Mileage more than he would have received had he travelled by the nearest post-route, and charged accordingly.
Let no man jump at the conclusion that this excess has been charged and received contrary to law; the fact is otherwise. The members are all honorable men- if any irrelevant infidel should doubt it, we can silence him by referring to the prefix to their names in the newspaper- and we presume each has charged just what the law allows him. That law expressly says that each shall receive eight dollars for every twenty miles traveled in coming to and returning from Congress ‘by the usually traveled route;’ and of course 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. We assume that each has charged precisely what the law allows him and thereupon we press home the question-‘Ought not THAT LAW to be amended? It is for the sake of urging this question that we have chosen to take the risk of giving offence to some friend in Congress, who may fanoy himself exhibited at disadvantage by this publication.- This is very far from our intention. It is not in the character of receivers of the money but in that of masters of the law that we ask the attention of the Members to this expose. Congress can correct it at once if disposed to do so. We are blaming no man for accepting such compensation for his services as the law allows him; but we insist that the law should not continue to allow such charges as these. Is not the distinction a clear one?
Let us briefly illustrate the existing necessity for a Mileage Reform Bill:
When the compension of the Congress was fixed, twenty miles travel was just about equivalent to a day’s work; the average rate of travel through the country not exceeding forty miles per day, and the cost being about ten cents per mile, all things included. At present, the average rate of travel is at least one hundred miles per day and the average cost hardly more than five cents per mile. Twenty dollars per hundred miles travel now is fully equal to twenty dollars for fifty miles travel then. Yet Congress has steadily refused to reduce the Mileage; bills with that intent having repeatedly passed the House, but as uniformly been killed in the Senate.
Thirty – odd years ago the Member from the Cincinnati, Ohio charged 500 miles as the distance from that city to Washington, or $400 per Session; riding in stages and on horseback all the way- a tedious laborious journey. His successor in the present Congress rides in steamboats and cars nearly the entire distance, sleeps like a top, lives like a lord, makes the journey in about half the time and at less than half the cost, and charges 790 miles or $838 40 more than his predecessor. Strictly according to law, mind you, but what sort of law?
Twenty years ago the Member from North Eastern Ohio charged 341 miles on his distance to Washington coming either on horseback and receiving $878 80 for the Session. His successor in the present Congress can come here much quicker certainly as cheap, but he charges 850 miles and receives $680 for mileage! It is but just to add that he lives forty miles farther away.
Two Whig Members of the present House failed of reelection and will be succeeded winter by Loco-Focos because they charged ‘long mileage’. Here is a public misfortune sustained because of the injustice of the present law.
A member from Alabama lives up one branch of a principal river in that state, while the road to Washington lies directly across to the other branch and so eastward. He charges Mileage down one fork to the other, and up that to the great road as aforesaid, and so makes over 300 miles instead of about 100. All ‘regular’ of course
We have heard it affirmed that one at least of the Louisiana Members charges from his residence down the Red River to the Mississippi, down the Mississippi to New- Orleans, thence back up that same Mississippi by the mouth of Red River to the Ohio, and so up to the Wheeling, and by Baltimore to Washington. Should not this be corrected?
We are about to have a new assortment of States and Territories, scattered all the way to sunset and the Sandwich Islands. Is it not high time that the Mileage were settled on a basis of justice and economy? Can members who pocket these roundabout allowances be expected to scrutinize carefully the bills and expenditures submitted to them? Can disbursing officers who know that the Members of Congress receive such Mileage and refuse to correct it, be expected to construe strictly as against themselves and examine sharply as against their friends? They cannot. Wherefore, we entreat you, men in Congress! to reform the Mileage at this present Session!