HOW THOROUGHLY and completely do members of Congress fill out the disclosure forms that are required by law? Not as thoroughly and completely as they should. They are busy people, with many demands on their time, and they did not go into the line of work they're in to fill out forms. Many consider them nuisances. So it's natural that there will be omissions and mistakes.
What's important is what happens then. The two houses of Congress handle these matters in entirely different ways. The Senate ethics committee reads through every member's report and sends it back for amendment if it appears that required information has been omitted. The committee has a detailed and rigorous checklist, and undoubtedly some senators or their staffs are annoyed when the reports are bucked back with notes attached. But there is one happy result. No senator has gotten in trouble in recent years because of omissions or ambiguities on the forms.
The same cannot be said of the House. There, members' reports are received and filed by the ethics committee. Neither staff nor committee members examine them to make sure there are no omissions. In the short run this makes life easier for congressmen, no doubt. In the long run it may make their political lives more difficult. No queries were made, for example, when Rep. Geraldine Ferraro first claimed an exemption from reporting her husband's assets. Yet it turned out that legitimate questions could be asked about that -- and were, at the politically most embarrassing time. Or take the case of Rep. Fernand St Germain, whose disclosure forms omitted disclosure that he had purchased stock in a Florida savings and loan. It's possible that if he had been asked whether he simply had an account in the S&L or owned stock in it, he might have sold the stock more quickly than he did and avoided the unfavorable publicity he received on it in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
It is possible also that, if they were required to dot all the i's and cross all the t's on their disclosure forms, members would decide to stay away from the edges of the law and make certain they stayed well inside it. This would be better for them politically and better for the nation generally. Tight enforcement, Senate-style, would help House members serve their constituents properly -- and would in the long run help them politically.