Liveblogging the Civil War False Claims Act: the Senate debates the budget

by Ben Vernia | February 7th, 2012

On February 7, 1862, the New York Times published an account of the prior day’s proceedings in the Senate. The key item of business was a debate on a “bill to define the pay and emoluments of officers of the army”. The greatly increasing federal budget – then over half a billion dollars and certain to rise – caused the Senators to consider the extent of waste due to fraud, and to criticize lawmakers’ expenses. Senator Sherman (OH-R), said:

The great problem of this war is not a physical but a financial one. One year ago the President crept into the Capital in disguise. Five hundred determined men could then have taken the Capital and all the archives, and this Capital might have been the Manassas of the rebellion. Then we were weak physically, but we had scarcely any debt. Now the condition of things is changed, and we are strong physically, but weak financially, and the question must be met how we are to carry on the financial measures of the Government.

* * *

In my judgment three propositions will embrace all the legislation needed to place the public credit upon a basis to yield ample revenue for the prosecution of the war. First — The prompt levy of a tax, other than duties on imports, to produce not less than $150,000,000, to be levied as far as may be, upon certain luxuries other than upon persons and property. Second — A careful revision of the laws regulating salaries and compensation, and a correction of the abuses growing out of existing laws for the purchase and transportation of property. Third — A rigid scrutiny of the disbursements of the public funds, and a prompt punishment of every officer who either takes himself, or permits others to take, money for services or property, of which the Government do not receive the benefit.

Referring to the then-recent scandal involving the cost-plus compensation for purchasing merchant ships, he continued:

Your assessments will be cheerfully paid; but if so, they must be wisely expended. You cannot take from the people their resources and their earnings to pay Mr. MORGAN $70,000 for four weeks work. You cannot employ their resources, collected in the form of taxes, to pay useless employees about the halls of Congress; nor to pay office-holders extravagant compensation; nor will they allow you to pay officers of the army and navy unreasonable salaries.

Looking to their own expenses, the Senators debated the lucrative practice of paying themselves for miles traveled to and from the Senate, and on its business. Senator Nesmith (OR), noted that his predecessor particularly abused the system:

His illustrious predecessor, (LANE,) when here as a delegate, drew mileage to the amount of $5,964; and then, when Oregon was admitted, and he was elected Senator, he drew $5,964 again as mileage, for walking from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Yet he (NESMITH,) thought that something was due to the members from the Pacific Coast. He (NESMITH,) brought his family here last year, and it cost him three thousand dollars to get to New-York. He might be told that he could leave his family at home. That was sometimes inconvenient, and by the laws of Oregon, if a man was a year absent from his wife, she was entitled to a divorce. [Laughter.]

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