When the Senate took what was generally viewed as necessary action to scale back an overly broad provision of a federal transparency law Thursday, it did so without much transparency of its own.
With most of the Senate’s attention focused on guns and immigration, the Senate quietly acted to dramatically scale back the reach of the law’s most contentious provision. Absent Congressional action or a court order, the law known as the STOCK Act requiring online publication of financial information for a slew of federal employees would take effect next week.
The Senate bill passed Thursday by unanimous consent goes beyond a simple delay. If passed by the House and signed by President Barack Obama, the measure would exclude legislative and executive staffers from having their financial disclosure forms posted on the Internet. The new reporting requirements would still apply to the president, vice president, members of Congress, congressional candidates and individuals subject to Senate confirmation.
Congress has previously delayed implementation of pieces of the STOCK Act without much fanfare, but the earlier cases came before a National Academy of Public Administration report produced at the request of Congress and released last month showed serious national security risks with publication of the information in a more readily available format.
This time, leadership aides for the majorities in both chambers provided few details before and after the bill (S 716) passed after many senators had already departed the Capitol on Thursday afternoon.
Neither the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee nor its House counterpart seemed to have specifics on what was in the works, a further indication that the matter was being handled at the leadership level in each chamber.
When asked whether he was involved at all in discussions on whether to block or move forward with implementation of the online database by the April 15 deadline, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., simply said, “No.” Similarly, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate panel, said he was not really involved in any discussions about the law.
The House Administration Committee was also not in the discussions about what might happen before Monday, a Republican spokeswoman for the committee confirmed, adding that the House Clerk would be responsible for posting information about House employees (who would also be exempt under the Senate bill).
While much of the law won plaudits from lawmakers in both parties and from outside groups favoring government transparency for blocking insider trading by members of Congress, one small provision not contained in the original draft legislation is causing no shortage of headaches.
Language added by the Senate as part of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., expanded the reporting requirements to the executive branch.
Sources on and off Capitol Hill previously suggested discussions were ongoing about how to craft a stopgap implementation delay that could easily clear the House and Senate, but details were quite scarce. Without quick action, the best chance of a delay could come from a legal challenge. The scope of the lawsuit in Maryland, however, applies more narrowly to executive branch employees.
Without final legislative action, the fate of the law could reside in federal courtroom in Greenbelt, Md.
A coalition of outside groups led by the Senior Executives Association has asked U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. to enjoin the federal government against implementing section 11 of the law, as applied to federal financial disclosure forms for senior officials within the executive branch to be posted on the Internet. The information in the reports would be used in the creation of a searchable database of information about the financial holdings of federal employees earning $119,554 per year or more.
Williams previously turned back a Justice Department effort to have the entire case dismissed, but he did say that some parts of the underlying complaint were not yet ripe. It was not immediately clear if Congressional action would be sufficient to negate the court proceedings.
In April 5 letters to top Congressional leaders, the Office of Government Ethics joined others’ calls to indefinitely delay the online posting of information, concurring with the National Academy of Public Administration report.
Emma Dumain and Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.