Federal workers lobbying Congress to delay STOCK Act disclosure rule

Groups representing federal government workers are lobbying lawmakers to delay implementation of a law requiring 28,000 senior government executives to disclose their finances online by Dec. 8. 

Groups opposed to the rule argue doing so could threaten national security, and they’ve mounted a lobbying campaign and a court challenge to eliminate or at a minimum push back the implementation date. 

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“We believe the provision that requires all of the financial filings of the senior government officials to be posted on the Internet is difficult and will create unintended consequences,” said Keith Curtis, a senior foreign service officer at the Commerce Department. 

“Ideally, it would be eliminated,” said Curtis, who is also vice president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).

Lawmakers already have approved delaying the provision once. In doing so, they also commissioned a six-month study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to look into security and privacy risks posed by posting the information online. 

Congress should at least wait for that report, due sometime in 2013, before allowing the rule to take effect, the groups say. 

“Duh,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the nation’s capital. 

“Doing a study about whether posting the information online will cause great harm after the information has already been posted online is the most obvious case I can think of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted,” he said. 

“They should have a chance to look at the study and decided whether or not to repeal the provision,” said Bill Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association.

Spitzer is one of the lead attorneys in a lawsuit filed by some of the employee groups seeking to halt the provision. A judge last month granted a temporary injunction preventing implementation until Oct. 31. Congress stretched that date further by passing legislation to move the disclosure date to Dec. 8.

The legislation was approved following reports that lawmakers used insider information to benefit their stock portfolios.

The law requires all lawmakers and House and Senate candidates to file financial disclosure forms online. House forms have been online for years, but Congress just put Senate and Senate-candidate forms online this week. 

The Office of Government Ethics earlier this year posted about 1,000 financial disclosure reports for political appointees who have been confirmed by the Senate. Disclosure reports on all of the 28,000 federal workers affected by the new law are already available in paper form from their respective agencies.

Senior government officials worry if their financial information goes online, it would become much more accessible to those who wish to do the United States harm.

Hostile foreign intelligence agencies are “always seeking to create agents, to turn people by finding people who have needs and to get some information from them,” Curtis said. “Information is power and this is giving foreign intelligence agencies a trove of information that they could use powerfully.”

Spitzer said the ACLU was concerned with the provision because it would invade workers’ privacy. 

“We are strong believers to the right to privacy,” Spitzer said. “Technology is intruding on civil liberties in a dramatic number of ways today.” 

Spitzer acknowledged many senior government workers do not deal with national security, but he argued the requirement to post finances online could discourage public service. 

Lawmakers who represent districts with federal workers have rallied to help. 

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) thinks the coming study should serve as a basis to void the disclosure requirement. 

“The NAPA study should make clear why this policy is unnecessary and potentially very harmful. With that clarified, Congress can pass a permanent fix that ensures our civil servants’ privacy is protected, and thus their safety. Until this study is complete, I will work for Congress to delay the online reporting requirement for federal workers,” Moran said in a statement.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said lawmakers should at least wait for the study. 

“Last week’s Senate bill showed a broad recognition that Congress would benefit from the careful analysis of nonpartisan, subject-matter experts before blindly putting the private financial information of rank-and-file federal employees on the Internet,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Our public servants deserve that kind of consideration, and I will push for a further delay until we have the benefit of the report.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the law could be tweaked to make some workers exempt from the requirement. 

“I want to clarify that the bill we hope Congress will pass in the lame-duck session will establish a way to determine which top executive- and legislative-branch officials should be exempt from online filing due for personal and national-security reasons. And the hope is that the NAPA study will be complete before any final decisions must be made,” said Leslie Phillips, the Lieberman spokeswoman.

The fate of the rule may be decided in the lame-duck session of Congress. 

Curtis with AFSA said lawmakers have had trouble making sure that financial disclosure is on a par between Congress and the administration.

“One of the sticking points is to make sure that it is equitable across the legislative and executive branch while maintaining the original purpose of the act, which was to prevent insider trading in Congress,” Curtis said.