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Another Day, Another Reason For Voters To Loathe Congress

The House Ethics Committee dismayed government watchdogs by reducing disclosure requirements for privately paid trips taken by members of Congress.
Matthias Schrader
The House Ethics Committee dismayed government watchdogs by reducing disclosure requirements for privately paid trips taken by members of Congress.

Congressional approval ratings are at rock bottom. Why would members pull a stunt likely to make them even more unpopular than they already are?

While you ponder that question, here's what they did: As first reported by National Journal, the House Ethics Committee made it harder for journalists and good-government watchdogs to track members' privately financed trips by getting rid of a key travel reporting requirement on the annual disclosure form.

Lawmakers still must get prior approval for trips and report the travel to the House clerk's office within two weeks of returning. But watchdogs counted on the annual disclosure form because it provided all of the required information from lawmakers on finances and travel all in one place.

In its defense, the House Ethics Committee said the move was all about streamlining the process. It issued a statement meant to sound reassuring to the casual observer.

"All of the detailed post-travel reports filed by all House members and staff — not just those of staff who file financial disclosure reports — are publicly available in a searchable online database on the clerk's web site, on the same page where the public can look up Members' financial disclosure reports, at"

But as one senior House staff member told It's All Politics, that explanation might only satisfy someone who didn't really understand how the system works.

"Their statement is intentionally confusing," the staffer said. "You would have to be very familiar with the rules to be able to read the statement and then come out of it knowing what they're talking about."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said if the prior disclosure regime wasn't restored, she would seek a legislative fix.

"The new rule presented by the Ethics Committee for disclosure of travel must be reversed," she said 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."

More biting criticism came from the Campaign Legal Center's Meredith McGehee.

"With public confidence in the U.S. Congress reaching a record low of 7 percent, according to yesterday's Gallup poll, you would think the House Ethics Committee would focus on building public confidence in the institution, rather than looking for ways to make their dirty laundry harder to find," she said.

"With the committee's long-standing and well-deserved reputation for protecting members and stonewalling reporters, and the well-documented appetite of members for free travel on the dime of those seeking to influence them," she said, "one would hope that the committee would tread lightly when eliminating disclosure requirements for these junkets."

But one would hope that in vain, apparently.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.