Disclosure Changes Weighed

Posted October 25, 2004 at 6:09pm

A provision in legislation that would implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission could potentially be used to weaken financial disclosure requirements for Members of Congress and senior administration officials, a senior Democrat is warning fellow lawmakers.

As conferees attempted this week to hammer out a compromise on the high-profile intelligence reform bill, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has asked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to reject Section 5043 of H.R. 10, which would change public finance disclosure requirements for certain members of the intelligence community.

“Section 5043 of the bill provided that national security officials and nominees for national security positions would no longer have to disclose the value of any assets over $2.5 million,” Waxman said, adding that “the primary justification provided for this change was that it was too burdensome for wealthy officials to comply with the reporting requirements.”

Without naming names, Waxman and others interviewed for this story say an effort is under way by some lawmakers to similarly limit how much Members of Congress and other public officials must report about their holdings.

Under current law, officials who are required to publicly disclose their assets must assign each a valuation by checking the appropriate column with a range of values, the upper levels of which are $5 million, $25 million and $50 million. With Section 5043 in place, the top possible estimate for an asset’s value would be “greater than $2.5 million.”

That would provide a much murkier picture of the high-value holdings, critics say.

Congressional aides opposed to the measure cite other potential problems with Section 5043, such as no longer requiring disclosure of the dates of stock transfers. They warned that the issue is flying below the radar screen.

“If it happens, it’s going to happen without anyone knowing,” said one aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The focus is all on the national intelligence director and counterterrorism issues. These issues in … the bill are getting no attention.”

By contrast, supporters of the proposal have touted it as a much-needed reform to streamline the appointments process for the intelligence community. Some would argue that it ought to be extended to the rest of the government.

At an Oct. 8 press conference, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) cheered the changes in the bill, arguing that streamlining financial disclosure requirements for appointees would help improve a sluggish nomination process. He countered the contention that it would somehow diminish ethics safeguards.

“Common Cause came forward and said the need for disclosures is to look for conflicts, not to lay people’s assets out there for everybody to look at, but for conflicts,” Davis said. “It’s not something where you’re just declaring all your assets and opening it up. That discourages a lot of people from getting into the business.”

But Waxman argues that the intelligence measure could be the beginning of a slippery slope toward less disclosure for all government officials, including Members of Congress.

“This provision is unwise, and Democratic members sought unsuccessfully to strike it from the House bill,” Waxman’s letter stated. “But now there is a danger that it will be expanded.”

Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, had an even harsher assessment.

“This sounds like they’re beginning to gut the personal financial disclosure forms in the name of homeland security, and it’s a joke … a bad joke,” Noble said. “This is something that they clearly hope to sneak by.”

The White House also opposes Section 5043, though not because officials there see it as anathema to disclosure, but because any modernization of the financial disclosure ought to take into account all three branches of government.

The Bush administration is instead urging Congress to “adopt the bill to modernize government-wide financial disclosure submitted by the Office of Government Ethics to the Speaker on July 16, 2003.”

That draft bill, which is on OGE’s official government Web site, would significantly alter public financial disclosure requirements and for all federal employees, amending the way they disclose everything from the value of their assets — which in many cases would be subject to less-specific dollar evaluations — to what their spouses earn.

For instance, the OGE proposal would eliminate the reporting requirement for honoraria earned by a covered person’s spouse. This change could put a crimp in the public’s appetite for knowing how much political luminaries like former President Bill Clinton and ex-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) are being paid. Both are husbands of current Senators.

Paul Light, a Brookings Institution expert on federal financial disclosure and its burdens, said voyeurism isn’t enough of a reason to dismiss reform. He said he supports the proposal contained in H.R. 10.

“Right now we’ve disclosed ourselves into a real nightmare,” he said, adding that “for most appointees financial disclosures are repeatedly referenced as the most difficult part of the process.”

Light is not alone. While the Senate simply requires a study of the topic, unlike the House version, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a supporter of streamlining the financial disclosure process, acknowledged during a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing he chaired in September that several of his colleagues “want the disclosure form to be changed for all the branches of government.”