A change in how the House Ethics Committee discloses gifts from lobbying groups raised some eyebrows when discovered by National Journal this week, and gave new fodder to those who say Congress has lost its way and is badly in need of radical change (i.e. most of America).
Hill watchers at the Journal discovered that the committee, which is charged with setting ethical standards and keeping track of financial disclosures of Congress, deleted a rule that required lawmakers to report on their end-of-year financial reports when organizations funded by lobbying groups pay for the often lavish trips around the world that Congress members frequently take.
Lawmakers still have to report the trips to the House Clerk, and all those reports are posted on the Clerk’s webpage. The Ethics Committee insists it was simply getting rid of a redundancy.
But because the rule change modifies 30 years of tradition and was made without announcement, according to the Journal, the secrecy of the shift has caught many reporters, politicians, and even lobbyists off-guard.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen said he was “completely unaware” of the change before National Journal contacted him for an interview.
Since the 1970s, politicians have been required to list any gifts of free travel on their annual financial disclosure forms. After the scandals involving Jack Abramoff came to light in 2006, lobbyists were barred from providing travel to members of Congress.
But the nonprofits that pay lobbyists can still furnish travel arrangements, and those arrangements can often be extravagant.
For example, a Mother Jones investigation into those nonprofits found that one, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, paid $47,000 for three House Republicans to travel to a posh resort in Kenya. The foundation is backed by Fortune 500 companies like ExxonMobil, as well as anti-environmental regulation groups like the American Petroleum Institute.
The Ethics Committee change was made sometime last year, and only found when National Journal looked closely at the committee’s most recent release of yearly administrative filings.
Despite the fact that the same information is available now as before the change, many are saying that even a symbolic change in disclosure can be worrying to the American public.
“The new rule presented by the Ethics Committee for disclosure of travel must be reversed," House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said. "While the committee's aim was to simplify the disclosure process, Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less.”