- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2014

The chairman of the House Ethics Committee sounded retreat Thursday, saying the panel will rescind a controversial change to disclosure requirements for lawmakers who are given free trips, a change that had been harshly criticized by watchdog groups.

“We will reverse that decision,” House Ethics Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, Texas Republican, said during a radio interview in his home district, the National Journal reported Thursday.

The magazine first reported the rule change earlier this week, revealing that the committee had made a closed-door decision to ease the requirement that lawmakers report their all-expenses paid travel from private sources, without any public announcement of the change. The disclosure still was required on a separate form that was not as readily available to the public.

Watchdog groups erupted in an outcry, blasting the committee for changing the rules to hide potentially shady travel deals from the public eye.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, condemned the change as well, saying it “must be reversed.”

Outside activist groups said they were pleased to see the committee heeding the public’s protests.

“I think that they couldn’t withstand the public pressure. It’s one of the rare moments when public pressure resulted in a positive change,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

During his radio broadcast, Mr. Conaway defended the committee’s original decision, saying that the disclosure rule was unnecessary because lawmakers already have to report their travel to the House Clerk’s office.

“This report on an annual basis is redundant. It’s duplicative,” Mr. Conaway said. ” … So it’s out there. We’re not hiding anything from anybody.”

Ms. Sloan admitted that a reversal was easier for the ethics panel to institute because the information in question already had to be disclosed, but outside groups have a tougher time trying to expand the level of disclosure.

“If we had been actually asking for more additional disclosure of information, you can bet they wouldn’t have caved so quickly,” Ms. Sloan said in an interview. “That said, this is a good victory.”

But experts have argued that incident hurts the already abysmal image of Congress with voters.

“The bottom line is it sends a bad message. With the public’s trust in Congress at an all-time low, you don’t want to send a message that it can be more difficult to find out information,” Rep. Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat, told the National Journal.

The disclosure alteration went largely unnoticed and was only reported in the 2014 guidebook for the new e-filing system, issued to lawmakers earlier this year.

“We had gotten not one complaint from the public,” Mr. Conaway said. “Not one person had looked for this information except this reporter.”

He added that the more frustrating aspect of the report was the rapid outcry from Democrats in Congress, who were quick to criticize himself and the committee’s ranking member Linda Sanchez, California Democrat, when the change came to light.

“Their righteous indignation would be a lot more believable if they’d have said something in May when they didn’t file — when they filed their return without that disclosure,” Mr. Conaway said.

Mr. Conaway explained that lawmakers would have between 15 and 30 days to amend their filings to include the free, privately sponsored trips that they received in 2013.

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