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House alters reporting of lawmakers’ free trips

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is no longer requiring lawmakers to report some free trips they take on the annual forms they file about their personal finances, drawing fire from advocates of more transparency in government.

Legislators will still have to report details about their travel on the House clerk’s website, which is less commonly monitored by reporters, watchdog groups and others than the financial disclosure reports. That website information is publicly available and is far more specific than the single line of information that – until now – they have provided on their financial disclosure forms.

The House clerk’s website asks several pages of questions about who is sponsoring the trip, the itinerary and costs for lodging, transportation and other expenses. The one line on lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms requires the sponsor’s identity, the itinerary and whether lodging and other expenses were provided, but no cost information.

John Boehner Holds Media Briefing At The Capitol
U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (Alex Wong, Getty Images)

Ethics committee staff director Tom Rust said the travel information lawmakers must file online must be submitted within 15 days of travel – unlike the annual forms, which cover trips taken the previous year.

In a written statement, Rust said the bipartisan panel’s staff recommended the changes to the financial disclosure forms and added: “The committee is committed to effective and efficient public disclosure and will continue to look for opportunities to improve” its reporting.

The change was not publicly announced but was described in an instruction book for lawmakers on how to fill out the forms. The elimination of the requirement was first reported by the National Journal.

The change was criticized by watchdog groups.

“Removing the travel disclosure requirement from the annual disclosure form is a blatant attempt to avoid accountability,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-profit that monitors actions by lawmakers. She called assertions that the move was for efficiency “ludicrous.”

With polls showing the public has little confidence in Congress, “You would think the House Ethics Committee would focus on building public confidence in the institution, rather than looking for ways to make their dirty laundry harder to find,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit that monitors congressional ethics and campaign finance.

Word of the move also prompted a disagreement between the House’s top two leaders. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the change should be canceled and said she would ask House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for a vote on reversing it if the Ethics panel does not do so.

“While the committee’s aim was to simplify the disclosure process, Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less,” Pelosi said.

But Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “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.”

House members have included the travel information in their personal financial disclosure forms since the late 1970s.

Even with the change, lawmakers are required to continue reporting some free trips worth at least $350 on their financial disclosure forms. These include travel to charity fundraisers and for events unrelated to congressional business.

Members of Congress and their aides reported taking 1,893 privately paid trips last year, the most since stricter reporting requirements took effect in 2007 after a scandal involving then-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to LegiStorm, a private organization that compiles data about Congress. The group said those trips cost $6,015,824.

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