House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that the House Ethics Committee’s decision to stop requiring lawmakers to publish the free trips they take on their annual disclosure forms “must be reversed.” But while Pelosi was quick to condemn the reduced disclosure, members of her own party had previously signed off on the change.
The Ethics Committee is one of the few panels in Congress divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. That means that ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and her Democratic colleagues (Reps. Michael Capuano, Yvette Clarke, and Ted Deutch and Del. Pedro Pierluisi) had to have approved the deleted disclosure requirement, along with Republicans led by committee Chairman Michael Conaway of Texas.
“Rep. Pelosi’s staff needs to talk to her representative on the Ethics Committee, who signed off on this bipartisan change to reduce duplicative paperwork,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
An aide to Pelosi confirmed that she was unaware of the new policy until National Journal reported late Monday that the Ethics panel had quietly deleted the requirement that all-expenses-paid journeys funded by private groups be published on lawmakers’ annual financial-disclosure forms.
Sanchez’s office referred questions to the Ethics Committee on Monday and did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Lawmakers’ privately sponsored trips must still be reported separately to the House’s Office of the Clerk within 15 days of travel and published online there. But the yearly forms of lawmakers are the primary source of financial information on them, and among the most scrutinized. Free trips for lawmakers have been reported there since the form’s creation in the late 1970s.
“While the committee’s aim was to simplify the disclosure process, Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less,” Pelosi said in her statement Tuesday.
The House Ethics Committee had declined to comment on Monday why it made the change. But in a rare public statement on Tuesday, Tom Rust, the committee’s chief counsel, said that “the committee’s nonpartisan staff recommended a number of changes to the financial-disclosure forms, including eliminating the need to report less information about private travel than the traveler had already publicly disclosed.”
Along with Pelosi, other Democratic lawmakers disagreed with the removed disclosure requirement on Tuesday. “The bottom line is it sends a bad message,” Rep. Michael Quigley, D-Ill., a cochair of the Congressional Transparency Caucus, said in an interview. “With the public’s trust in Congress at an all-time low, you don’t want to send a message that it can be more difficult to find out information.”
Quigley declined to criticize his Democratic colleagues on the Ethics panel who had signed off on the reduced disclosure. “I don’t think they were trying to do something inappropriate,” he said. “I just think they had a different point of view.”
Quigley said “duplicative” reporting isn’t a bad thing and that “one-stop shopping” is critical for complete public disclosure. “Very few people are so savvy that they know how to find things and they should all be in one spot as a result,” Quigley said. “They’re not like, ‘I’ve looked at his personal disclosure and now I have to look at the clerk’s site to get this information.’ “
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, said in a statement Tuesday that he will introduce legislation to reverse the rule upon the House’s return from its July 4 congressional recess. “These kinds of backroom deals and changing of the rules in the middle of the night is exactly why Congress has a lower approval rating than cockroaches and traffic jams,” he said.
Pelosi added that if the Ethics Committee does not reverse itself on its own, “we will call upon the speaker to allow a vote on legislation to reverse this decision.”
Steel’s statement that this was a “bipartisan change to reduce duplicative paperwork,” however, suggests such a vote is unlikely.
The deletion of the requirement to report trips on yearly financial forms comes as lawmakers are increasingly traveling the world on private groups’ dime. In 2013, lawmakers and their aides participated in nearly 1,900 trips at a cost of more than $6 million, according to Legistorm, which compiles travel records.