Congress Quietly Deletes a Key Disclosure of Free Trips Lawmakers Take

House Ethics reverses decades of precedent as lobbyist-sponsored lawmaker travel expands.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: A Delta Airlines jet passes an American flag during take-off at Los Angles International Airport (LAX) on April 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Delays have been reported throughout the nation because of the furloughing of air traffic controllers under sequestration. The average delay overnight in the Southern California Terminal Radius Approach Control (TRACON) was was three hours.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
June 30, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

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.”

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