The annual financial disclosure process is meant to ensure that Members of Congress are completely above board in their personal business dealings, without advantage from their position and without conflicts of interest. Filling out the forms is a laborious, time-consuming process, but the end result should be that the public has faith in a lawmaker’s financial integrity — and that the lawmaker can fairly claim to be in compliance with Congress’ rules and regulations.
But if the disclosure forms go through little more than a rubber-stamp review by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and if the Government Accountability Office has neither the time nor the resources to ensure the process is working properly — as it is mandated to do — then the public and the Members themselves are being poorly served.
Roll Call reported Tuesday that dozens of financial disclosure forms filed by Members last year lacked a vitally important piece of information: the profits Members made on hundreds of stock transactions. But the questions raised by these omissions are more for the ethics committee than the Members themselves, who appear to have been trying to comply with the rules and were never informed that anything was amiss in their paperwork. Many of these Members, in fact, hurried to correct their filings after an earlier Roll Call article identified the potential problem.
In each case examined by Roll Call, Members reported a transaction in one section of the disclosure form, but never reported income as required in another section. Regardless, the ethics committee signed off on the reports as complete. That indicates to us that ethics staffers are largely checking the boxes as they examine the Members’ forms — and not even doing that to satisfaction. If one reporter can find dozens of mistakes through a cursory review of the filings, why couldn’t the ethics committee staff?
A number of Members expressed frustration to Roll Call that the committee failed to notify them that required information was missing from the form. “We shouldn’t be relying on Roll Call articles to provide us with ethics guidance,” one staffer said.
Indeed. What’s needed is a review of the guidance the ethics committee provides to Members on how to fill out the forms — and a tightening up of the committee’s own process for examining Members’ submissions. If the forms themselves need to be fine-tuned for clarity, we see no reason to delay that step.
We also were disappointed to learn that the GAO has not reviewed Congress’ financial disclosure process since 1994. A GAO spokesman cited the agency’s growing workload and shrinking budget as reasons for the lapse in review. But the Ethics in Government Act says GAO must review the disclosure process “regularly” to ensure it is working. A 14-year gap in reviews does not suffice.
Getting this right is important to everybody, including an ethics committee that is staked with enormous responsibility for protecting the integrity of the House of Representatives. This is a bipartisan problem that predates the current Democratic majority, so leaders of both parties should take an interest in correcting an obvious flaw in the system. But there should be no delay in taking the necessary steps to ensure financial disclosure is complete.