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US House Ethics Committee Mandates Greater Transparency for Travel and Disclosure

Posted in Campaign Finance

By Stefan Passantino

In the past month, the United States House Committee on Ethics has issued two comprehensive “pink sheets” implementing new disclosure requirements for privately sponsored travel and for member finances.  Both sets of requirements are designed to increase transparency and public trust in government but also provide significant compliance challenges for the private sector and their representatives.

Travel

On December 27, 2012, the House Committee on Ethics issued comprehensive regulations on privately sponsored travel in an effort to prevent lobbying organizations from financing Member travel for those they hope to influence through non-profit sister organizations closely aligned with the lobbying organization.  Past examples of such travel receiving considerable press scrutiny have included biennial trips to Israel for members and staff paid for by the nonprofit American Israel Education Foundation which is closely aligned with the lobbying organization, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

While privately sponsored travel for Members and staff is still permitted, the new regulations require increased sponsor transparency and increased (to thirty days) lead time for Committee approval.  The one exception afforded to entities that engage in limited lobbying activities is with respect to travel sponsored by “US institutions of higher learning”.

According to a press release issued with the new regulations, this is not the end of the road for public scrutiny of privately sponsored travel:

the Committee will add to the disclosure requirements in new certification forms to increase the significant transparency that has already led to abundant reporting and comment on these trips.  With the improved processes, the Committee will continue to examine the growth of groups related to organizations that retain lobbyists, and will continue to consider whether there is a need and fair manner to regulate further, beyond the significant transparency already in place.

The new regulations become effective for travel taking place on or after April 1, 2013.

Financial Disclosure

Every year, on May 15, all Members of Congress and senior staff (defined as those earning more than $119,553.60 per year) are required to submit public financial disclosures.  All dread the process, but this year, that task will be considerably more onerous.  Last week, on January 23, 2013, the House Committee on Ethics issued guidance clarifying that filers will now be required to disclose the individual assets held by their investment funds and accounts as opposed to simply disclosing the name and overall value of the account.

This new regulation is in direct response to the public outrage over member trading on what some considered to be “inside information” which led to passage of the STOCK ACT.

Now, the only funds exempt from individual disclosure will be publicly traded “widely held investment” accounts such as mutual funds in which no entity (other than the US government itself) holds more than a 5% interest.  Every other holding of a Member’s 401(k) and IRA will have to be individually itemized on the Congressional disclosures.