Report Proposes Looser Disclosure

Posted April 6, 2005 at 6:34pm

The Office of Government Ethics is recommending changes to federal disclosure rules that would allow senior executive branch officials to expose far less personal financial information to public scrutiny — providing Members of Congress with a strong temptation to do the same for themselves.

“The question is whether House leaders will now look to this report as a template for dumbing down reporting requirements in the interests of streamlining,” said Mark Glaze, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog that opposes weakening the disclosure rules.

Glaze said the organization is still “reviewing” the OGE report but has “some concerns that it may go too far in reducing the amount of information that officials need to disclose.”

The recommendations, made in a report requested by Congress, concur with the justification for having disclosure rules in the first place, including increasing public confidence in government and guarding against conflicts of interest among federal officials.

But the agency said it proposed changes because the current system often requires filers to disclose more information than is “useful or necessary.”

“It is not the general subject of the information requested, but rather the level of detail required, that is burdensome and overly intrusive,” the report’s anonymous authors write.

The current standards come from the same 1978 law, and all three branches now observe nearly identical rules.

House Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — who has objected to some previous attempts to alter federal financial disclosure rules — said he preferred not to comment on the proposal because he has not seen the OGE report.

Waxman said he considers it critical that the public have access to information about the financial activities of senior government officials. But he added, “It shouldn’t be so burdensome that you have to hire some accountant to do your forms.”

OGE proposes loosening the requirements on reporting, partly by raising the threshold requiring disclosure. For instance, it would increase the dollar amount that would trigger disclosure of deposit accounts and government securities holdings from $5,000 to $100,000. Likewise, whereas filers are currently obligated to report personal compensation at or above $5,000, the OGE recommends ratcheting that figure up to $25,000.

No reporting of assets or transactions valued at $5,000 or less would be required. Filers would also not have to report liabilities of $20,000 or less.

The proposal would also allow filers to be less specific about the financial activities they do report. Current law requires filers to lump everything from income amount and liability to the value of assets and transactions under any of 11 different categories. OGE recommends reducing the number of such groupings to three.

“We do not believe that the public interest demands information with this level of detail,” the report states. “Moreover, it typically adds little or nothing to the quality of conflict-of-interest reviews and is a burden on the filer.”

OGE’s analysis, which was quietly submitted to Congress in late March, grew from a controversial effort by House GOP leaders to include changes to federal financial disclosure rules in the intelligence reform package, passed in December.

Lawmakers backing the effort, including Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), argued that the system needed “streamlining,” in part because the complexity and intrusiveness of disclosure requirements discouraged able people from accepting executive branch positions.

But critics suggested that GOP leaders might be seeking a back-door route to weakening financial reporting rules across the board.

Backing down after this criticism, GOP leaders withdrew the financial disclosure language from the intelligence bill and instead asked OGE to study the issue and prepare a report within 90 days.

Davis acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that lawmakers would probably seek to include themselves in any plan to change the rules for financial disclosure. But he said he would prefer to limit any changes to the executive branch.

“Look, I could do it either way,” Davis said. “But I think I’d rather try to encourage good people to get into — really, to volunteer their time — to work in government.”

The changes recommended by OGE would alter the disclosure forms considerably. Filers would report income under just three categories — earned, unearned and “honoraria” — and no longer break it down to sub-categories such as “dividends,” “capital gains” or “rent.”

The way filers would disclose the amounts of income they receive would be similarly affected. Where the typical federal form currently has 11 ranges of income disclosure — the topmost being as high as $5 million and more — OGE would have these reduced to three: $501-$20,000, $20,001-$100,000 and “over $100,000.”

Simplification is a theme that pervades the recommendations in the OGE report. The agency characterizes many of the current rules and standards as “unnecessary” if their purpose is to ensure that officials do not face conflicts of interest.

For instance, OGE suggests that filers who report reimbursements for travel should not be required to provide itineraries for their trips. This is in part because such details don’t provide useful information, but also because they impose a “significant burden” on filers, who may be forced to recall details from months earlier.

“Moreover, in some cases, requiring the reporting of such details, such as the traveler’s choice of hotel, may even implicate security concerns,” the report’s authors write.

For some of the same reasons, OGE recommends that filers no longer be required to report the dates on which transactions were made.

“On balance, we believe that the minimal utility of, and potential interest in, knowing the exact date of a transaction is outweighed by the potential filing burden,” the authors write.

Reflecting on the report’s recommendations, Glaze said his group would likely agree that there is no need for as many as 11 different types of income to be reported.

But he expressed strong concern about the OGE proposal to sharply lower the number at which filers would be allowed to stop specifying the amount of income they had received.

Glaze also said his group would object to eliminating the requirement that filers report the dates of transactions, pointing out that such information could be used to determine whether a federal employee made a decision on the basis of inside information.