Pelosi to Ethics panel: Require lawmakers to report free trips

Greg Nash

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Tuesday for the Ethics Committee to reinstate public disclosure requirements when lawmakers take privately funded trips.

The Ethics panel this year quietly scrapped the requirement that lawmakers report such travel on their annual financial disclosure forms, as they've done for decades, National Journal reported Monday.

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The furtive change prompted an outcry from good-government groups and campaign finance advocates, who have long criticized the cozy relationship between Congress and the private groups and individuals who frequently sponsor trips for lawmakers and their staffers.

On Tuesday, Pelosi amplified those advocates' concerns.

“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."

The Ethics Committee announced the change in the 2014 instruction manual presented to lawmakers earlier this year. The change freed lawmakers from reporting privately sponsored travel from last year on their annual financial disclosure forms, which were due in May.

Lawmakers, however, must still disclose such travel to the House Clerk within 15 days of the trip. The Clerk's office then posts that information on its public website. 

The Ethics Committee on Tuesday defended their disclosure rules.

“The Ethics Committee continues to enforce the requirement that all House Members and staff who wish to accept privately sponsored travel must continue to receive prior approval from the Ethics Committee and to file detailed paperwork about any such trip within 15 days,” said Tom Rust, the panel’s chief counsel, in a statement. “Neither of those requirements has been changed or diluted in any way.”

Rust said post-travel reports were publicly available online at the House Clerk’s website alongside lawmakers’ financial disclosure information.

The changes were recommended by committee staff, he added.

“The Committee adopted these changes and publicly highlighted them on page 2 of the financial disclosure instructions, which were provided to all financial disclosure filers and posted on the Committee's public web site months ago,” said Rust. “The Committee is committed to effective and efficient public disclosure, and will continue to look for opportunities to improve the public filings required of Members and staff.”

It's unclear how the change came about. Under the Ethics Committee guidelines, rule changes require a vote of the full committee, which consists of 10 members, five from each party. But interpretative changes may be made by the chairman and the ranking member acting jointly without the rest of the committee.

Pelosi warned that, if the members of the panel don't reverse the change, Democrats will push legislation to do it for them.

"If the Ethics Committee does not act, then we will call upon the Speaker to allow a vote on legislation to reverse this decision," she said. "In the meantime, Members are encouraged to disclose such trips to both the Clerk and in their annual disclosures.”

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), though, was quick to note that Democrats on the Ethics Committee had endorsed the change.

"Rep. Pelosi's staff needs to talk to her representative on the Ethics Committee, who signed off on this bipartisan change to reduce duplicative paperwork," Michael Steel said in an email.

This story was updated at 2:52 p.m.