House Ethics Committee ditches disclosure requirement for junkets

Members need not disclose privately paid trips

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The House Ethics Committee has quietly – ever so quietly it seems – ditched a requirement that members disclose on their annual financial reports trips paid for by private groups.

Lawmakers still have to report privately funded trips – sometimes called “junkets”– to the House Office of the Clerk, but watchdog groups say eliminating the reporting requirement on the financial statements means fewer people will know about the trips and  undermine transparency in government. 

“There is a very rich history of members of Congress being wined and dined on trips funded by companies or lobbyists or others, and it has led to scandals,” said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “To kind of try to sweep this whole area back under the rug is something history would dictate is going to be problematic.”

Free travel has been noted on the annual financial forms since their creation in the late 1970s. The office of Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the ethics panel chairman, referred all questions to the staff director, who issued a statement saying the committee remains “committed to effective and efficient public disclosure.”

The committee apparently made the changes months ago and quietly posted them on its Website. The changes weren’t widely known until news reports revealed them this week.

As the House developed a system for filing personal financial reports online, committee staff recommended changes to financial disclosure forms, including not requiring duplicate information about privately funded trips provided in more detail elsewhere, committee staff director Tom Rust said.

The committee adopted the changes, “publicly highlighted” them in instructions sent to all financial disclosure filers and posted them on its website, Rust said. (Don’t worry if the change slipped by you. You’re probably not alone.)

The committee still requires prior approval for privately funded trips and detailed post-trip reports filed within 15 days of returning, Rust said. The reports are available publicly in an online searchable database.

Another government watchdog called the change in trip reporting “a blatant attempt to avoid accountability.”

“The only Americans who would possibly be in favor of this change are members of Congress,” Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement. “It seems some lawmakers are eager to enjoy privately funded lavish trips without facing pesky questions from watchdog groups and constituents. The idea that this is a change for efficiency's sake is ludicrous.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., thinks this was all a mistake.

“The new rule presented by the Ethics Committee for disclosure of travel must be reversed,” she said Tuesday in a statement. “While the committee’s aim was to simplify the disclosure process, Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less.  If the Ethics Committee does not act, then we will call upon the Speaker to allow a vote on legislation to reverse this decision.  In the meantime, Members are encouraged to disclose such trips to both the Clerk and in their annual disclosures.”

Scripps Washington correspondent Trish Choate can be reached at Trish.Choate@Scripps.com. Follow her on Twitter at Trish_in_DC
 
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