Q. I am hoping you can clear up some confusion about the controversy over news that the House Ethics Committee changed the rules to limit Members’ disclosure of gifts of free travel on annual financial disclosure forms. The reactions seemed all over the place. Some said that it was a big step backwards. Others said that nothing really changed. So, what’s the story? A. Last week, travel disclosure requirements for members and staff did indeed make news when National Journal published an article titled, “Congress Quietly Deletes a Key Disclosure of Free Trips Lawmakers Take.” According to the article, the House Committee on Ethics reversed three decades of precedent by eliminating the requirement that privately sponsored travel be included on members’ and staffers’ annual financial disclosure forms.
Uproar ensued. Ethics advocates cried foul. Bloggers blogged. Nancy Pelosi vowed to push for legislation if the Ethics Committee did not reverse its “new rule.”
But, did the committee really create a new rule?
To answer that, it helps to understand the financial disclosure process. Financial disclosure by members of Congress is governed by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. The general idea is to enable the public to monitor potential financial conflicts of interest for members and staffers. To that end, every year members and certain senior staffers must file financial disclosure forms, revealing things such as assets, liabilities and significant transactions made during the year. The forms also require disclosure of any gifts received, including payment of travel expenses by outside sources.
For years, the House Ethics Committee has published guidance on how to fill out the forms. For trips paid for by outside sources, the guidance lists the types of trips that must be included and those that need not be. Historically, the guidance has stated that it is not necessary to include several kinds of trips that already must be disclosed on other publicly filed forms.
For example, the guidance has not required filers to include on their forms certain trips paid for by foreign government entities, which are separately reported under the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act. Similarly, the forms do not require disclosure of political or campaign trips paid for by a federal political organization, if reported separately as an expense under the Federal Election Campaign Act.
In this year’s guidance, the Ethics Committee added another type of trip that may be excluded: trips taken in connection with official duties. Again, such trips already are required to be disclosed elsewhere. In fact, the law requires that the trips be pre-approved by the Ethics Committee and then disclosed to the clerk of the House within 15 days of the trip. The information that must be disclosed within 15 days is much more detailed than the information on annual financial disclosure forms, and is in fact available to the public in a searchable database maintained by the clerk on the same website as the financial disclosure forms.
Late last week, however, the Ethics Committee issued a memorandum announcing that it was reversing its new guidance . The memo explained the initial decision not to require officially connected travel to be disclosed on annual forms had been made to promote efficiency, as one of several changes recommended by non-partisan, professional staff in collaboration with the clerk’s office when developing the new online filing system introduced early this year. “The additional reporting of privately sponsored travel on financial disclosure reports,” the memorandum stated, “is duplicative of information the filer has already reported and that is made publicly available in the same place online as financial disclosure reports.”
In 2013, for example, the committee reviewed 2,651 financial disclosure forms. Valuable time and resources, the memorandum said, was required to identify and contact any filers who inadvertently failed to include on their forms privately sponsored travel that they had already properly disclosed elsewhere. Moreover, the memorandum stated, requiring privately sponsored travel to be included on financial disclosure forms essentially required the committee to review the same private trip three times: once before the trip for purposes of approval, again after the trip in the post-travel paperwork and then once more, in reviewing the financial disclosure forms. Eliminating the disclosure on financial disclosure forms would have reduced this redundancy.
Nevertheless, “in light of feedback we have received from our fellow Members” the committee decided to reinstitute the requirement to include the trips on annual financial disclosure forms. The committee encourages anyone looking for information about such trips to continue “to use the searchable online database of detailed post-travel filing on the Clerk’s website,” which, compared to the annual forms, contains more information more contemporaneously.
Even before the reversal last week, it was not clear whether anything significant had changed. Now, it is completely clear. Nothing has.
C. Simon Davidson is an attorney with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.