No light in basement

Is Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) net worth $136 million, or is it closer to $678 million? How much did Nissan pay last year for lobbying on fuel economy standards? And what exactly did aides to Reps. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) learn on their “official business” trip to Microsoft’s Xbox launch in November 2005? The answer to all these questions is … nobody knows. At least you don’t know if you’re relying on disclosure reports filed on paper with the clerk of the House.

Members’ personal financial reports employ vague standards that wouldn’t satisfy even Enron’s accountant. The lobbying reports are notoriously bereft of details about how much money is being spent on specific lobbying campaigns, and are open to a “stealth lobbying” loophole that allows lobbyists to mask their true clients behind coalitions and contracts with other lobbying firms. And the trip reports that members and staff must file after traveling at a private interest’s expense amount to little more than postcards — without the pretty pictures.

Although Congress may have had good intentions when it instituted these public disclosure policies, the House’s inattention to the accessibility of its own public records undermines public confidence in Congress, which these paper trails were designed to boost.

Storing public documents in the Legislative Resource Center in the Cannon House Office Building’s basement doesn’t exactly signal enthusiasm for openness and accessibility. In this electronic age, Congress should no longer be taking credit for making this information available, because to all but the especially motivated archivist, historian or investigative reporter, it’s not available.

Why not start by simply enforcing disclosure rules, demanding greater accuracy, closing reporting loopholes and creating a system that is user-friendly, not filer-friendly?

To its credit, the House already requires lobbyists to file disclosure reports electronically. But, remarkably, the House has not authorized the clerk to make those electronic reports available to the public electronically. Even the Senate, which has never been known for being on the cutting edge of technology, makes lobbying disclosure reports available on the Internet — but only as digital images, not for easy downloading. Both chambers’ travel and financial disclosure reports can still be found only in paper or digital-image format. It’s then up to non-governmental groups like the Center for Responsive Politics, where I work, to do tedious data entry and decipher this information for the public. Since the modern-day office keeps its records electronically, switching to 21st-century technology shouldn’t require Congress to take a big leap.

Simply digitizing the contents of paper reports is not sufficient. The structure of the information must harmonize with widely accepted standards for accessibility, searchability and compatibility with other databases. So, the House must put some effort into redesigning these reports to answer seemingly simple questions like, “What companies does my member of Congress invest in?”

Finally, the House needs to regularly audit for compliance and remain vigilant to the inevitable loopholes that plague any disclosure system.

Thousands of Americans have toured Washington this spring, but I wager that few dropped in on the House Clerk’s Office.
There they could learn who’s lobbying whom, where their members of Congress are traveling (and on whose dime) and how those lawmakers have invested their own money.

But after Americans send their elected representatives to Washington, they shouldn’t have to follow them here to figure out what they’re up to.

La Pira is the lobbying researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics (www.OpenSecrets.org ). He contributed the “House Clerk’s Office” chapter for the Open House Project.