Ethics committee backs down on free trips

The House Ethics Committee has reinstated a requirement that lawmakers disclose all privately funded trips on annual reports.

In the name of eliminating redundancy, the panel earlier this year quietly scrapped a decades-old stipulation that lawmakers report all free travel on their yearly financial disclosure forms – provided those trips were divulged separately to the House Clerk.

The change was first reported by National Journal on Monday.

The move led to an outcry from campaign finance advocates, government watchdog groups and some powerful lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who called on committee leaders to revert to the old system.

On Thursday, Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) did just that.

In a lengthy joint statement, the panel leaders defended the initial change, calling the dual reporting requirements "duplicative" and suggesting press reports on the issue have been misleading. Nonetheless, the lawmakers said they've restored the reporting requirement on the annual forms – "effective immediately."

"Some recent press reports regarding this change have created confusion in the House community by suggesting that Members and House staff no longer have to make any disclosure of privately sponsored travel, that the public would no longer have access to any information about privately sponsored travel, and that the rules governing what types of privately sponsored travel are acceptable have been changed," Conaway and Sanchez said. "None of this is correct."

But, they added, "in light of feedback we have received from our fellow Members and after further consideration, we have determined that the Committee will return to its previous guidance … effective immediately." 

The reversal was immediately welcomed by those lawmakers, representing both parties, who had condemned the decision to eliminate the reporting requirement on the annual forms.

The critics were worried the change could exacerbate public concern over the cozy relationship between Congress and the private groups and individuals who frequently sponsor trips for lawmakers and their staff. 

“I commend the Ethics Committee for coming to their senses and reinstating the disclosure requirement for privately funded travel," Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) said in a statement. "These moves only deepen the mistrust the American people have in Congress."

Loebsack had sponsored a bipartisan resolution with Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) that would have required the Ethics Committee to reinstall the scrapped requirement if panel leaders didn't do so on their own.

The reporting change, which the Ethics Committee announced in the 2014 instruction manual presented to lawmakers earlier this year, means lawmakers did not have to report privately sponsored travel from last year on this year's annual financial disclosure forms, which were due in May.

However, the panel did not eliminate the requirement that lawmakers disclose such travel to the House Clerk within 15 days of the trip. That information may still be obtained on the Clerk's public website.

This story was updated at 4:53 p.m.