- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Watchdogs will have to sniff harder for information on lawmakers’ lavish, lobbyist-paid travel to exotic destinations, thanks to the House Ethics Committee’s recent change to Congressional disclosure laws.

Overturning a 30-year precedent, the committee decided to do away with rules requiring lawmakers to report privately-funded travel on their annual financial disclosure forms, The National Journal reported Monday.

Now reporters, watchdogs and members of the public must dig through files at the House’s Office of the Clerk to obtain the same information that had been readily accessible since the 1970s.

“This is such an obvious effort to avoid accountability,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There’s no legitimate reason. There’s no good reason for it.”

According to the news agency, the only public indication that the trips no longer needed to be reported on the annual disclosure forms was in the instruction booklet issued to lawmakers in 2014, in which the guidelines for the new electronic filing system tells lawmakers and staff they are “no longer required to report privately sponsored travel” on the form.

“The more you can hide, the less accountable you can be,” Ms. Sloan said. “It’s clear these forms are useful for reporters and watchdogs, and obviously a little too useful.”

Last year, members of Congress and their staff took nearly 1,900 trips, costing more than $6 million, according to Legistorm records.

While lobbyists have been banned from organizing or funding private travel for Congress members, their family and their staff, nonprofit groups funding the same trips today are closely tied to lobbying firms.

Some experts say the change is poorly timed as the public’s confidence in Washington politicians continues to dwindle.

“With public confidence in the U.S. Congress reaching a record low of 7 percent, 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, Policy Director at the 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.”

The change comes as a shock even to researchers who closely follow the House Ethics Committee.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for consumer-focused organization Public Citizen, told the National Journal that he was completely unaware of the rule shift.

“There’s seems to be no reason I could imagine why the Ethics Committee would minimize the amount of information that gets reported,” Mr. Holman said, adding that the travel records on the annual reports are “a critical element for understanding the finances of our elected representatives.”

Ms. McGehee said the committee’s reluctance to clarify the matter has cast suspicion on its motives, adding that the real issue at hand for the committee is simplifying the disclosure filing process.

“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,” she said. “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.”