July 02, 2014

Coalition Alarmed by Travel Non-disclosure Policy, Recommends Ethics Fixes

By Daniel Schuman

Plane flying over palm treesToday we and a coalition of organizations expressed grave concern regarding the decision by the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics to remove the requirement that members of Congress report travel paid by outside groups on their annual Personal Financial Disclosure forms. Our collective misgivings are fueled in part because this change took all of us by surprise. The Committee failed to properly communicate disclosure of congressional travel was under review; the first inkling anything had changed came from a National Journal article.

Read the letter from the coalition to the Ethics Committee.

The Committee on Ethics has a reputation for protecting members of Congress, whether by slapping unethical members on the wrist for gross violations or failing to gather and publish ethics-related information for public review. This backdrop of mistrust, combined with the Committee's reluctance to communicate regularly with outside stakeholders and the press, creates a toxic environment. We recommend a number of steps the Committee and the House of Representatives should take to restore the public's confidence.

Concerning travel specifically, the Committee should:

  • Reverse its decision allowing non-disclosure of travel paid by third parties in the Annual Financial Disclosure forms. There are legal and prudential considerations that have not been fully weighed. While some third party travel information is reported elsewhere, the annual Personal Financial Disclosure forms serve a unique purpose.
  • Publicly disclose more kinds of travel. Current rules allow for significant gaps in what travel information is reported. Those gaps include: travel paid by friends of a member of Congress; travel paid for by a federal, state, or local governments or federal agencies; travel paid by public universities out of general funds; one-day trips; and travel paid under the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act. This should be fixed.
  • Publicly disclose more information about travel. We should know if travel is on a private jet. We should know how much travel costs across the board. The House Statement of Expenditures should identify travel destination next to costs. CODEL travel should be disclosed quickly and in one central location.

Concerning public access to ethics information, the Ethics Committee should:

  • Do a better job of disclosing its activities. All rules and guidance, whether current or historical, should be published on the Committee's website contemporaneously. Proposed changes should be communicated to the public and go through a vetting process with outside stakeholders.
  • Improve the disclosure of ethics-related information. Ethics-related information should be available from one central location, be easily searchable and sortable, and be published online in better formats. Currently, ethics-related information is scattered across multiple websites. The search tools are poorly-documented and lack significant capabilities. And the disclosures themselves are often published as PDF picture files, not structured data. For accountability to work, this needs to change.

Finally, all ethics disclosures from the House of Representatives should be available at one central location. It should be easy for citizens to search across all filings concerning a member of Congress. At a minimum, a central ethics site should describe what information is available from the government and where it can be found. Documents should be searchable and published in a structured-data format. And a central website should include ethics documents that are publicly available but not published online or are online but not in structured-data formats.

The Transparency in Government Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), contains provisions addressing many of these issues, especially in Title I. The House of Representatives and the Ethics Committee should review and expand upon the legislation, in consultation with interested members of Congress and outside stakeholders.

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