Republican-controlled House Ethics Committee quietly changes lobbyist-paid travel reporting requirements for lawmakers

The Republican-controlled House Ethics Committee has removed a requirement that lawmakers report trips paid for by lobbyists on their annual financial disclosures, according to National Journal, making it easier for them to hide which special interest groups are paying for them to travel:

The move, made behind closed doors and without a public announcement by the House Ethics Committee, reverses more than three decades of precedent. Gifts of free travel to lawmakers have appeared on the yearly financial form dating back its creation in the late 1970s, after the Watergate scandal. National Journal uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings.

“This is such an obvious effort to avoid accountability,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There’s no legitimate reason. There’s no good reason for it.”

Free trips paid for by private groups must still be reported separately to the House’s Office of the Clerk and disclosed there. But they will now be absent from the chief document that reporters, watchdogs, and members of the public have used for decades to scrutinize lawmakers’ finances.

“The more you can hide, the less accountable you can be,” Sloan said of lawmakers. “It’s clear these forms are useful for reporters and watchdogs, and obviously a little too useful.”

Yeah, House members will are still required to report any trips paid for by lobbyists and they still have to receive prior-approval before such travel, but that’s not the point. First, as noted in the excerpt above, the House Ethics Committee didn’t announce the change. That sends exactly the wrong message, especially at a time when Republicans are complaining about the lack of transparency from the Obama administration.

Secondly, keeping the information in one place made it much easier for interested parties — including constituents and public interests groups — to seek who is paying for members to travel. That point in particular is important because lobbyist-paid travel has been on the rise in recent years.

According to a recent report from LegiStorm, for example, “members of Congress and their staff made nearly 1900 trips costing $6 million, breaking the record for the most privately sponsored travel since rules were tightened in 2007.” Now, it’s true that some of these trips are completely on the up and up, but sometimes they’re not.

In fact, the reason the rules were tightened was because of a scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a couple of his crony friends, including then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). Democrats took control of the House in the 2006 mid-term election and implemented new travel rules at the beginning of the following Congress.

Lastly, the move provides an opening for House Democrats to knock Republicans, which Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) did yesterday, according to The Hill:

“The new rule presented by the Ethics Committee for disclosure of travel must be reversed,” she said in a statement. “While the committee’s aim was to simplify the disclosure process, Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less.”
Pelosi warned that, if the members of the panel don’t reverse the change, Democrats will push legislation to do it for them.

“If the Ethics Committee does not act, then we will call upon the Speaker to allow a vote on legislation to reverse this decision,” she said. “In the meantime, Members are encouraged to disclose such trips to both the Clerk and in their annual disclosures.”

A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said that Democrats on the House Ethics Committee “signed off” on the new reporting procedure. That may be true, but that doesn’t make it kosher. At the end of the day, Republicans control the House of Representatives and they are, ultimately, held responsible for any changes to rules like this.

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