Financial Disclosure Rules May Be Revised

Instructions for Reporting on Assets Expanded

Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:37pm

The House ethics committee is considering an overhaul of its financial disclosure rulebook, including a range of changes aimed at curbing common errors and simplifying the annual process.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, published a draft of its instruction manual for filling out financial disclosure forms on its website last week.

Since taking the panel’s helm at the start of 111th Congress, Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) have expressed a desire to ease the annual financial disclosure process and sought funds in their 2010 budget to begin technology upgrades to the disclosure system, as well as travel and training programs.

The panel’s leaders have not publicly discussed the details of their vision, however, leaving the draft proposal as one of the few windows into potential alterations.

Each year the committee reviews about 2,100 forms — containing details on bank accounts, rental homes, mortgages, student loans and financial transactions — filed by Members, senior aides and House candidates.

The forms can run from a single page to several hundred pages, depending on a particular filer’s holdings.

Among the most monumental changes included in the draft proposal — which was removed from the committee’s website following Roll Call inquiries last week — is a provision that would for the first time have defined gay married couples as “spouses” for the purposes of filling out the annual disclosure forms.

It remained unclear whether that provision could reappear in the instruction booklet in 2011 — the next time the rulebook could be revised, since the ethics panel released its instructions for the 2010 filing deadline last week. Both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage agreed the rule would violate the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which mandates that for any federal regulations, “the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”

The 29-page draft instructions included fewer controversial modifications in an apparent attempt to simplify the process for filers and circumvent common errors.

Much of the draft proposal has been reformatted, dismantling long paragraphs in favor of bullet points and bolded reminders. Citations of the federal law that dictates the contents of the forms also disappear from the instructions.

The draft proposal would add new “column-by-column” instructions for the disclosure report’s sections on transactions, in which Members and aides must report the purchase and sale of assets.

The instructions included an explanation of a new “capital gains” box that appears on the 2010 disclosure form.

Instructions for the current forms, which are due in May, include no reference to the box, which was apparently added to address the recurring problem of Members reporting sales of stock without reporting capital gains that they realized in those sales. The new form specifically requires the filer to check a box if a sale produced capital gains of more than $200.

Another apparent effort to avoid the amendments that dozens of Members file each year to their disclosure forms appears in an italicized one-sentence reminder of the draft rules: “Every asset from your prior Statements should be accounted for in your current Statement.”

The sentence appears in a section explaining that ethics reviewers will compare a Member’s current and prior disclosure forms. The sentence is incorporated into language that already appears in existing instructions encouraging filers to clarify the appearance or disappearance of assets.

In addition, the manual’s instructions for reporting “assets and unearned income” — such as bank accounts, mutual funds, real estate, trusts and retirement accounts — has new or expanded explanations on subjects including annuities, hedge funds, college savings accounts, insurance policies, investment clubs and intellectual property rights.

The draft also includes a new section on “collectibles held as investments,” instructing Members to report the value of items such as “rare books or impressionist oil paintings” if they are “held for investment or the production of income.”

The current manual advises filers that “personal property that is not principally held for investment,” such as jewelry, artwork and automobiles, does not need to be reported. There is no separate section on collectibles, however.

Among the few draft items to be included in the 23-page 2010 instruction manual is a provision that reminds Members and aides to disclose any agreements with book publishers “whether or not royalties have actually been received.”