Government watchdogs denounce change in rules for reporting congressional trips

A quiet alteration of the reporting requirements for congressional trips funded by outside groups drew outrage from government watchdog groups and some Democrats on Tuesday. In response, the House Ethics Committee insisted that the change would not limit transparency.

The change came in the form of a deleted line on the annual financial disclosure form for members of Congress. Previously, lawmakers were required to list any of their domestic or foreign travel that was paid for by an outside group.

The change, first reported by the National Journal, was denounced by several government watchdog groups, who declared that it would hurt efforts to monitor the influence of outside groups on elected officials.

But the committee’s top staffer, in a rare public statement issued Tuesday afternoon, insisted that the change in reporting did not constitute any significant decrease in transparency requirements.

Committee staffers said that any trip sponsored by an outside group must still be reported by the lawmaker to the House clerk’s office, which maintains a searchable online database of those filings.

“The Ethics Committee continues to enforce the requirement that all House Members and staff who wish to accept privately sponsored travel must continue to receive prior approval from the Ethics Committee and to file detailed paperwork about any such trip within 15 days. Neither of those requirements has been changed or diluted in any way,” Tom Rust, the House Ethics Committee’s staff director and chief counsel, said in a detailed statement.

“All of the detailed post-travel reports filed by all House Members and staff — not just those of staff who file financial disclosure reports — are publicly available in a searchable online database on the Clerk’s web site, on the same page where the public can look up Members’ financial disclosure reports, at clerk.house. gov,” the statement said. “As the House developed the new online financial disclosure system, 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 the year before.”

However, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the disclosure on annual reports to be immediately reinstated. “The new rule presented by the Ethics Committee for disclosure of travel must be reversed. 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 a statement. “If the Ethics Committee does not act, then we will call upon the Speaker to allow a vote on legislation to reverse this decision.”

Pelosi encouraged members to continue to disclose the such trips to both the clerk and on their financial disclosure forms.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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