It's going to be a little more difficult to ferret out which members of Congress are lavished with all-expenses-paid trips around the world after the House has quietly stripped away the requirement that such privately sponsored travel be included on lawmakers' annual financial-disclosure forms.
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.
Related: Nancy Pelosi Says Decision to Delete Reporting Requirement for Free Trips 'Must Be Reversed'
"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."
House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, did not return a call for comment; ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., referred questions to committee staff. The committee declined to comment.
The change occurs as free travel, which critics have criticized as thinly veiled junkets, has come back into vogue. Last year, members of Congress and their aides took more free trips than in any year since the influence-peddling scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison. There were nearly 1,900 trips at a cost of more than $6 million last year, according to Legistorm, which compiles travel records.
Now none of those trips must be included on the annual disclosures of lawmakers or their aides.
The tabs for these international excursions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. One trip to Australia earlier this year cost nearly $50,000. Lawmakers are often invited to bring along their husbands or wives, fly in business class, and stay in plush four-star hotels. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, lobbyists were banned from organizing or paying for these travels. But some of the nonprofits underwriting them today have extremely close ties to lobbying groups, including sharing staff, money, and offices.
The only indication that these trips no longer need to be disclosed on annual reports came in the instructions booklet issued to lawmakers in 2014. The guidelines for the new electronic filing system tell lawmakers and staff they "are no longer required to report privately sponsored travel" on the form.
Perhaps because the ethics committee's edict was issued so quietly, disclosure remained uneven.
For instance, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who led a GOP delegation of lawmakers to Israel last summer paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is closely tied to the pro-Israel lobby, did not include the trip on his annual form. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who led a similar trip for Democrats, did include it on his form. But some of the rank-and-file members who went on the trip with Hoyer did not.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer group Public Citizen who closely tracks the international travels of lawmakers and the actions of the Ethics Committee, said he was "completely unaware" of the change until contacted by National Journal.
"There's seems to be no reason I could imagine why the Ethics Committee would minimize the amount of information that gets reported," Holman said.
Holman took solace in the fact that the post-Abramoff reform law included mandatory disclosure of such trips on the clerk's website. But he said he was still was concerned about their absence from the annual reports, which he called "a critical element for understanding the finances of our elected representatives."
"It's always good to have more disclosure than less," he said. "It just seems a little odd that the Ethics Committee would pass such a rule change."
This article appears in the July 1, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.