Lawmakers' Step Back Toward Disclosure Driven By Optics

The House Ethics Committee is undoing a recent change to its annual financial disclosure form that deleted information about free trips members have taken. Members had explained the change as a way to streamline paperwork, particularly when more detailed information is available elsewhere. They decided the bad publicity wasn't worth the trouble.

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The House Ethics Committee is undoing a recent change it made to lawmakers' annual financial disclosure forms. The committee had deleted a line asking what free trips members have taken in the previous year. These trips are usually paid for by companies or private interest groups. Members justified the change this week, saying that the information was redundant. But they've now decided to reverse course and put the question back. Joining us from the Capitol to explain this is NPR's Laura Sullivan. And Laura, what started this controversy?

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: So a few months ago, the ethics committee made a small administrative change to the online form that lawmakers fill out once a year, disclosing what money they've received from where. The form used to have a line in it asking if they had taken any trips paid for by private sources. So that line disappeared from the form. It was a small change, but it's the kind of thing that, on its face, infuriates the public, which already has a low opinion of Congress and good government groups and also, quite frankly, reporters - all part of an effort to keep an eye on the wining, dining junkets and whatnot. But and there's - this is a big but, the committee didn't change the actual reporting requirement. All that information still had to be disclosed, it just no longer had to be disclosed on that particular form. All members have to report taking a trip paid for by someone else within 15 days. And that information was and is all compiled on a really rather useful search engine on the House clerk's website.

SIEGEL: So why did the committee reverse course, in that case?

SULLIVAN: In a phrase - bad publicity. They had House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi demanding that they put the question back in the annual form. Some members of Congress were threatening to introduce legislation to force the issue and the optics of it - I mean, the optics weren't good. The information is readily available but in theory, having it in two places could make it more accessible than having it in one place. But at the same time lawmakers are not falling all over the sword on this one. Here's Mike Conaway. He's a Republican from Texas who chairs the Ethics Committee, talking to KXYL in Brownwood, Texas this morning.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE CONAWAY: My colleagues in the house, Ms. Pelosi and a guy named Mike Fitzpatrick, who set their hair on fire over this issue, their righteous indignation would be a lot more believable if they had said something to me in May when they filed their return without that disclosure.

SULLIVAN: And Conaway is right that no lawmaker noticed the absence of this question when they filed their forms in May. This picked up steam after the National Journal reported it. And Committee staff and people close to this are saying, look, this committee, especially after the Jack Abramoff scandal, has gone above and beyond to make lawmaker gifts and income transparent. This information is online. It's searchable, which is a far cry from the Senate where lawmakers are still filling out actual pieces of paper and putting them in actual drawers.

SIEGEL: Laura, how much travel are we actually talking about here, when it comes to trips companies are paying for?

SULLIVAN: Well, according to one group that tracks this stuff, a nonprofit called LegiStorm, lawmakers went on almost 1,900 trips last year, all paid for by private groups to the tune of some $6 million. But here's something interesting. In 2005, before lawmakers had to disclose these trips in such an open manner, they took close to 5,000 trips, costing almost $10 million.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you Laura.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan speaking to us from the Capitol.

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