Congress messed up on disclosure — until it was called out.
Who says Congress can’t get anything done? If it’s a policy change that makes it more difficult for the public to track politicians’ free trips — and if this vote for “reform” is done in secret — bipartisanship abounds and it’s full-steam ahead.
With polls showing approval of Congress at a record low, the tone-deaf members of the U.S. House Ethics Committee apparently are on a mission to drive ratings below even that of Minnesota mosquitoes. At a meeting sometime over the past year — we can’t be sure exactly when, because the meetings are typically closed to the public — the committee’s five Republicans and five Democrats decided that the existing system for publicly disclosing travel paid for by private nonprofit groups and foreign governments was just too burdensome. So they voted to make things easier for themselves and harder for watchdogs by eliminating the requirement that members of Congress tally trip information on the financial-disclosure forms filed annually for public review.
Information about many trips, such as who paid and where politicians went, remained available through the U.S. House’s Office of the Clerk. Still, the annual financial forms are among the tools most commonly used by the public, because they’re essentially one-stop shopping for information that, among other things, sheds light on a politicians’ personal financial management skills, potential conflicts of interest and travels. By quietly removing this disclosure requirement, Congress added another hoop for watchdogs to jump through when the priority should have been making the workings of the legislative branch as transparent and accessible as possible.
The 10 members of the committee, none of whom are from Minnesota, were thinking of themselves instead of the public they serve. This doesn’t come as a surprise but is nonetheless infuriating.
The committee since has moved to reinstate the travel disclosure requirement on the annual forms. That’s good. Tracking travel is valuable in assessing a politicians’ priorities and openness to learning about business, people or places far from home. It’s also useful in determining what outside groups might be trying to influence him or her by paying for these trips.
But the committee’s reversal on the policy change was done grudgingly and only after the initial move was caught by a National Journal reporter. The committee’s chair, Republican Michael Conaway of Texas, carped during a recent radio interview that congressional colleagues protesting the move were scoring cheap political points at his expense. He also said there was no ill intent behind the change, only a desire to avoid duplication.
Conaway’s protests about efficiency ring hollow, however. The same goes for other organizations, including some media commenters who should know better, who have argued that the policy change was no big deal because travel info was still available through the House clerk. That was true for trips paid for by outside nonprofits, but not for “cultural exchange” trips where a foreign government footed the bill.
A closer read of the House Ethics manual suggests that these exchange trips get reported only on the annual form. Eliminating that requirement could have left this travel in the shadows. Voters ought to take a dim view of that. It should be public knowledge which governments are wining and dining members of Congress, particularly when key foreign-policy decisions are being made.
The brouhaha over the policy change comes as congressional travel ticks back up after last decade’s Jack Abramoff scandal led to crackdowns on all-expenses-paid trips provided by lobbyists. Few endeavors enlighten people as effectively as travel. That’s why the issue isn’t the travel by lawmakers, it’s how these trips are paid for.
The spotlight on the committee’s poor decisionmaking ought to renew the debate over trips paid for by nonprofit organizations, which are still allowed. These organizations often have ties to powerful lobbying organizations. In addition, it’s not always clear who is funding these organizations. “Too often, these nonprofits are front groups for special interests or others who are trying to influence Congress,’’ said Meredith McGehee of the respected Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
Seven of the eight members of Minnesota’s U.S. House delegation have provided a total of 256 travel disclosures to the U.S. House Clerk’s office since 2008. Destinations have included Israel, Turkey, Somalia, Morocco and Omaha, Neb.
One member of the House delegation has taken a principled stance against trips paid for by third parties: Democratic Rep. Tim Walz. When Walz has traveled, it has been as part of U.S. House delegations, with official funds, usually from the congressional committee organizing the trip, picking up the tab.
Walz is to be commended for his conscientious position. Members of Congress should be traveling to educate themselves on the issues. But it should be considered an official expense and not done on someone else’s dime.
Earlier, Walz led a successful effort to increase disclosure of Congress members’ stock market profits. The energetic congressman from southern Minnesota would garner Minnesotans’ support if he leads a new charge to rein in trips paid for by influence-seekers.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.