What the latest MKs’ expenses report tells us about our lawmakers

What the latest MKs’ expenses report tells us about our lawmakers

Why do Haredi MKs pay for a beeper service, and how do you spend nearly 12,000 shekels on newspaper subscriptions?

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

The Knesset, Jerusalem (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)
The Knesset, Jerusalem (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

The Knesset published on Thursday a detailed accounting of how Israel’s lawmakers spent their taxpayer-funded “contact with the public” allowance in 2013.

The good news first: Every single MK, including the 120 currently serving and the 53 who left in February when they failed to win reelection, spent less than the amount allotted to them by law.

Just 11 of the 173 MKs who served in the Knesset for at least some part of 2013 surpassed the NIS 49,000 average allotment — but in every case they had access to unspent funds left over from the previous year, according to the Knesset.

While that’s good news for those concerned with good governance, a deeper look into the report reveals that some MKs are either massively overspending on some services or reporting their spending in strange ways.

Some MKs managed to spend surprisingly high amounts for newspapers and related services. MK Nitzan Horovitz (Meretz) spent NIS 11,888 on the category, followed by MK Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beytenu) at NIS 10,839, Labor’s Avishay Braverman at NIS 9,686 and Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) at 7,685.

The sheer size of the figure (MKs already get two daily subscriptions for free, and in any case such subscriptions cost perhaps one-tenth of the figures cited above) suggest MKs are spending much of the amount on personalized clipping services, which can cost many thousands of shekels per year.

MK Nitzan Horovitz of Meretz. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Nitzan Horovitz of Meretz. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The largest spender on a clipping service (at least among those who reported it separately) was MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al), who put NIS 13,330 toward tracking his media presence in 2013, followed by MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor) who spent NIS 9,824.

The spending also reflected the different cultural and social milieux of the MKs. Haredi MKs tended to spend the most taxpayer funds on connecting with their constituents. Three of the five largest overall spenders were Haredi. (The five were, in order of spending, Shas’s Avraham Michaeli at NIS 71,908 and Amnon Cohen at NIS 64,549, Hadash MK Hanna Swaid at NIS 64,253, Labor leader Isaac Herzog at NIS 63,320 and UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler at NIS 62,935.)

Haredi or other ultra-observant MKs accounted for most of the MKs who reported spending on subscriptions to a “beeper service” that allows callers to leave a message with a human operator that gets sent on to the MK as an SMS. Since many Haredi voters refuse to own phones capable of sending or receiving SMS messages, the low-tech service is especially important for MKs from that sector. MKs who reported using the service include UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, Shas’s Michaeli and Jewish Home’s Nissan Slomiansky, an Orthodox-nationalist MK, but with many supporters belonging to the stricter segment of that community sometimes called “Haredi-nationalist.”

Education Minister Gideon Saar has voiced support for allowing migrant workers' children enrolled in the Israeli school system to remain in Israel (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Interior Minister Gideon Saar in May 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Other Haredi MKs, such as UTJ’s Eichler, did not list a beeper service, but reported significant spending on the broader category of “communications expenses.”

The ruling Likud party also revealed something about its political culture through the expense reports. Five of the six MKs who spent money on “informational gatherings” came from the Likud. Interior Minister Gideon Saar, one of the most popular Likud leaders among party activists, spent the most at NIS 16,000 for a gathering. Saar was followed by Coalition chairman Yariv Levin (NIS 13,658) and Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom (NIS 12,313). The next two (Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin at NIS 7,313 and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan at NIS 5,000) were also Likud leaders. One had to look to sixth place to find a non-Likudnik — in this case, Yesh Atid’s Karin Elharar, who spent a relatively paltry NIS 1,200 on her own gathering.

While Likudniks may favor special get-togethers, they are not the only good hosts revealed in the report. MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu) was the biggest spender on “light refreshments,” with a sizable expenditure of NIS 9,504. The next highest was MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) at NIS 6,653.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks at the Knesset, February 27, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks at the Knesset, February 27, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox MKs may have spent the most on direct contact with constituents (their expenses included mailings and renting offices in Haredi population centers), but it was Labor and Likud MKs — two of the largest parties with actual primaries — who were the biggest investors in websites and social media.

The leader in spending to enhance her online presence was the famously outspoken Labor MK Merav Michaeli (NIS 27,435), followed by the media savvy coalition chairman and Likud MK Yariv Levin (NIS 23,128), Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi (NIS 19,605), ex-Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich (NIS 19,069), Likud Deputy Minister in the PMO Ofir Akunis (NIS 13,736), who often acts as the government’s spokesman in public Knesset debates, and Deputy Foreign Minister Elkin (NIS 12,638), whose “Elkin Style” video, a “Gangnam Style” riff, was the viral sensation of the last Likud primaries.

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