QUIETLY, without any formal changes in policy -- but with a bit of bellowing from the cloakrooms -- the House ethics committee has taken several steps forward in enforcing the disclosure requirements that apply to all members of Congress. In the process, it has also done a better job of serving the members' own interest than some congressmen today are inclined to admit.
This has been accomplished by such simple expedients as rewriting the disclosure forms. The reporting requirements are set out immediately above the spaces in which information must be disclosed. This tends to eliminate ambiguities, such as that about the exemption for disclosure of a spouse's assets used by Geraldine Ferraro. "However," the committee's form now says, "in rare circumstances, where one or more financial interests of a spouse or dependent child meets the three standards listed below, such interest need not be disclosed." The message gets across: this is not an exception most of you members of Congress are going to qualify for.
The House committee has also announced that its staff is going to do what the staff of the Senate ethics committee does: comb carefully through the forms. Staff members bring to members' attention questions that are not answered, details that are not provided and apparent discrepancies from previous years' reports. They will ask the names of companies in which stock is held and the location of real estate owned -- matters of some importance in determining whether there has been a conflict of interest. Often, members will have good explanations for apparent errors, and they will be allowed, as they should be, to amend the forms to correct innocent errors. But the end result, if the committee follows through on its promise, will be more complete and accurate disclosure.
This will be good for the public -- and for the large majority of congressmen who comply with the law. The public will have access to the details it needs to assess whether congressmen have acted improperly. Members of the House will have a greater assurance that their disclosure forms will be able to withstand scrutiny. Naturally, members have been grumbling, and the ethics committee was persuaded not to require for the filings due May 15 interests in pension or retirement funds, including IRA and Keogh plans. It's too hard, they say, to value these interests in the short time the committee has allowed. Committee chairman Julian Dixon (D-Calif.) and ranking Republican Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) should not have backed down on this one point. But the changes they and the committee staff have made, if they are put into effect, should prove a quiet but useful reform.