It’s a very familiar sight: members of Congress, jetting off for an all-expenses-paid trip, financed by interest groups that hope to have some influence on public policy. Such trips are legal, of course, and sometimes have an entirely legitimate and defensible governmental purpose.
Other times, well, they’re a little tougher to defend.
But at a minimum, at least these excursions have an element of transparency intended to discourage corruption: federal lawmakers who take the trips have to fill out financial disclosure forms that are subject to public scrutiny.
At least, that was how the system worked. Shane Goldmacher reports this week on a recent rules change that’s raising eyebrows.
It’s going to be a little more difficult to ferret out which members of Congress are lavished with all-expenses-paid trips around the world after the House has quietly stripped away the requirement that such privately sponsored travel be included on lawmakers’ annual financial-disclosure forms.The move, made behind closed doors and without a public announcement by the House Ethics Committee, reverses more than three decades of precedent. Gifts of free travel to lawmakers have appeared on the yearly financial form dating back its creation in the late 1970s, after the Watergate scandal. National Journal uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings.
The disclosure requirement hasn’t been eliminated altogether – all-expenses-paid trips will still have to be reported to the Office of the Clerk – but as Goldmacher’s report added, “they will now be absent from the chief document that reporters, watchdogs, and members of the public have used for decades to scrutinize lawmakers’ finances.”
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer group Public Citizen, added, “There’s seems to be no reason I could imagine why the Ethics Committee would minimize the amount of information that gets reported.”
The question now becomes whether the House intends to leave it this way, now that the change has come to the public’s attention.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for example, is calling on the Ethics Committee to undo what they’ve done.
Pelosi said Tuesday that while the Ethics Committee seems to want to simplify the disclosure process, “Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less.”“If the Ethics Committee does not act, then we will call upon the Speaker to allow a vote on legislation to reverse this decision,” Pelosi said in her statement. “In the meantime, Members are encouraged to disclose such trips to both the Clerk and in their annual disclosures.”
House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office defended the change, saying it will “reduce duplicative paperwork.”
For what it’s worth, it’s not entirely clear who on the Ethics Committee initiated the change, but the Speaker’s office insists the change enjoyed bipartisan support.