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Disclosure of Conflicts Questioned

Despite New Rules, Opaqueness Reigns

While new House rules last year tried to widen the distance between Capitol Hill and K Street, many of the resulting safeguards are still concealed from public view, prompting a call from several outside groups to tighten the regulations.

Under guidelines enacted last September, Members and “very senior aides” — those who earn at least $126,975 in 2008, or 75 percent of a Member’s pay — are required to notify the chamber’s ethics committee when they begin negotiations for a new job.

Similarly, if either Members or aides accept a new post, they are subsequently required to recuse themselves from any situations that might give the appearance of a conflict of interest, including House or committee votes.

With the exception of a Member’s recusal, however, none of those documents is publicly available, making it possible for lawmakers, and to a greater extent their aides, to maintain lengthy transition periods from the Hill to the private sector without outside scrutiny.

In a letter issued last week to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), several Congressional watchdog groups pressed for the House to revisit the rules as they apply to Members.

“Under the new rules, while a Member must file a statement with the House Ethics Committee that the Member is engaged in negotiations for employment, the statement is not made public unless the Member takes the further step of recusal from a matter in which the Member may have a conflict or the appearance of a conflict or interest,” stated the letter issued by Common Cause, Democracy 21, Campaign Legal Center, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

The letter continued: “The potential absence of timely and adequate public disclosure under the new rules is illustrated by the fact that while numerous House Members have announced they will retire at the end of this Congress, only two Representatives, to date, have filed notices of employment negotiations that have become public.”

Both former Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.), now head of the Managed Funds Association, a hedge fund industry trade association, and Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who has announced he will leave the House on May 31 to join the firm Dickstein Shapiro, have filed recusal notices this session.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami did not offer specifics but said that House rules would be revisited at the start of the 111th Congress, a regular occurrence at the beginning of each new Congress.

“Rules will be examined and addressed in January of 2009 on a variety of issues,” Elshami said. “There have been some issues that have been brought to the attention of the full Congress.”

In the meantime, Members, and particularly aides, remain free to discreetly pursue new employment — aside from a one-year “cooling-off” period that limits the ability to lobby former colleagues — and even move into the private sector without great fanfare.

Although the House Ethics Manual dictates that “very senior staff” must indicate on financial disclosure forms “any agreement they reach on future employment, whether oral or written, before termination of their service with the House,” a review of such staff show very few have followed those rules since their enactment on Sept. 14.

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