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The news that Rep. Jo Ann Emerson was taking a lobbying gig early next year broke the morning of Dec. 3. A few hours later, a one-page disclosure that the Missouri Republican was in job talks filed with the House Ethics Committee became public in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.
Across the Capitol a few days later, Sen. Jim DeMint filed a similar notice with the Secretary of the Senate only after it already had been reported he was leaving government to take over The Heritage Foundation.
This, according to Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, is an example of a pretty worthless disclosure rule.
The whole point of requiring filings whenever lawmakers enter into job negotiations with a private employer is to give the public a glimpse into any potential conflicts of interest.
The changes were included in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. But Holman said the way the law was written and interpreted has watered down its intentions.
“We got taken is what happened,” Holman said.
For starters, House members file their notifications and recusals with the Ethics Committee, which determines when, or if, the filings will go to the Clerk of the House, where they are made public.
In Emerson’s case, she disclosed that her job negotiations with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association began on Nov. 19. She signed her form on Nov. 23. It made its way to the Legislative Resource Center in Cannon at 3 p.m. on Dec. 3.
“Originally, we had some strong revolving-door language in there,” Holman said. “The Democratic House chairmen, several of them, revolted against the revolving-door language. They gutted the revolving-door restrictions.”
Holman said he also didn’t realize that instead of having the reports filed directly with the Clerk of the House, which would make them a matter of public record, the House side mandated that they go to the Ethics Committee, which is bound by confidentiality. Senators, on the other hand, must file with the Secretary of the Senate, which makes the disclosures public.
DeMint’s report, time-stamped around the time he was addressing his soon-to-be colleagues at the conservative think tank, lists the “date of commencement of negotiations/arrangement and recusal” as Dec. 5 — one day before he and Heritage announced it was a done deal.
Despite the time lag for making Emerson’s report public and the timing of DeMint’s disclosure, these two departing members at least filed forms. Most members of Congress who decamp for private gigs have not. Just a handful of forms are on file in the Cannon basement and the Senate Office of Public Records. For example, no House disclosures or recusals from 2010 exist — or they haven’t been made public.