House Ethics Committee Eliminates Required Disclosure of Privately Financed Travel by Members on Financial Forms
The House Ethics Committee has eliminated the requirement for House Members to disclose their privately financed travel on their financial disclosure forms, according to National Journal. The Committee made this change without any public announcement whatsoever, and when it was discovered yesterday the Committee Chair, Ranking Member and Committee staff refused to comment on the controversial move.
“With public confidence in the U.S. Congress reaching a record low of 7%, according to yesterday's Gallup poll, you would think the House Ethics Committee would focus on building public confidence in the institution, rather than looking for ways to make their dirty laundry harder to find,” said Meredith McGehee, Campaign Legal Center. “With the Committee’s longstanding and well-deserved reputation for protecting Members and stonewalling reporters, and the well-documented appetite of Members for free travel on the dime of those seeking to influence them, one would hope that the Committee would tread lightly when eliminating disclosure requirements for these junkets.”
For decades, Members of Congress have been required to disclose on their financial disclosure forms the privately financed travel they accept. These trips include travel that is paid for by groups that don't lobby but which are often connected with sister organizations that do. According to Legistorm, members of Congress and their aides took more free trips in 2013 than in any year since the Jack Abramoff scandal—nearly 1,900 trips at a cost of more than $6 million. With this change in policy, the public will still be able to find travel disclosures through the Clerk of the House website, but the more commonly accessed financial disclosure forms will not have the information.
It is accurate to say, as the committee did today, that since passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007, there has been duplication between the travel reports and the disclosure form. But there has also been confusion. The instructions on the financial disclosure form as to what travel has to be listed say the Member does not need to disclose "privately-sponsored travel approved by the Ethics Committee, if post-travel disclosure was filed with the Clerk." However, the "Employee Post-Travel Disclosure Form" from the Ethics Committee states: "This form does not eliminate the need to report privately-financed travel on the annual Financial Disclosure Statements of those employees required to file them."
“Rather than address this admittedly confusing situation in a straightforward, public manner, with an explanation, the House Ethics Committee apparently chose silence, encouraging suspicion about their motives,” said McGehee. “If the Committee were really interested in improving disclosure, it would put its weight behind getting the financial disclosure forms information to be filed in a searchable, sortable, downloadable database instead of illegible PDFs. Once again, the Committee fails to understand the need for the institution to take extraordinary efforts to rebuild public confidence in an ethics process that is viewed an incumbency protection racket.”