House Ethics Committee weakens lobbyist-funded travel disclosure

What a coincidence — and just as lobbyist-funded travel is on the increase, too! Faced with heightened criticism over free junkets, the House Ethics Committee has acted … to make it easier to keep those trips quiet:

It’s going to be a little more difficult to ferret out which members of Congress are lavished with all-expenses-paid trips around the world after the House has quietly stripped away the requirement that such privately sponsored travel be included on lawmakers’ annual financial-disclosure forms.

The move, made behind closed doors and without a public announcement by the House Ethics Committee, reverses more than three decades of precedent. Gifts of free travel to lawmakers have appeared on the yearly financial form dating back its creation in the late 1970s, after the Watergate scandal. National Journal uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings. …

Free trips paid for by private groups must still be reported separately to the House’s Office of the Clerk and disclosed there. But they will now be absent from the chief document that reporters, watchdogs, and members of the public have used for decades to scrutinize lawmakers’ finances. …

The change occurs as free travel, which critics have criticized as thinly veiled junkets, has come back into vogue. Last year, members of Congress and their aides took more free trips than in any year since the influence-peddling scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison. There were nearly 1,900 trips at a cost of more than $6 million last year, according to Legistorm, which compiles travel records.

Just to be clear, lobbyist-funded travel will still have to be disclosed, but now that required disclosure is entirely internal. Prior to this decision, each member had to include this information in annual reports that were publicly available, and so did members of their staffs. Whether individual members of the House disclose it publicly now will be left entirely up to them from this year forward. Call me cynical, but I doubt many will take the time to step forward on their own to disclose their high-priced lobbyist junkets without being compelled to do so.

Not only is funding for those trips able to be kept quiet, so was the rule change itself. As noted above, NJ had to go looking for it, although it’s also tempting to wonder whether a disgruntled source on Capitol Hill gave Shane Goldmacher a heads-up on where to look. That would at least give some hope that a few people in the Beltway understand just how disgusted this will make everyone else outside of it.

So far, though, that doesn’t apply to Ethics committee leadership, which unsurprisingly declined to comment:

House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, did not return a call for comment; ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., referred questions to committee staff. The committee declined to comment.

Quelle surprise.

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