WASHINGTON – The House is no longer requiring lawmakers to report some free trips they take on the annual forms they file about their personal finances.
The change was not publicly announced but was described in an instruction book available to lawmakers on how to fill out the forms.
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 information is publicly available and is far more specific than the one line that -- until now -- they have provided on their financial disclosure forms.
The House clerk's website requires several pages of information about who is sponsoring the trip, the itinerary and costs for lodging, transportation and other expenses. The one line on lawmakers' financial disclosure forms required the sponsor's identity, the itinerary and whether lodging and other expenses were provided, but no cost information.
Ethics committee staff director Tom Rust said the travel information lawmakers must file online is more detailed than the financial disclosure forms and 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 he added: "The committee is committed to effective and efficient public disclosure and will continue to look for opportunities to improve" its reporting.
The House Ethics Committee did not initially provide an explanation for the change. The elimination of the requirement was first reported by the National Journal.
In a written statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the change should be reversed.
"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.
She said if the ethics panel does not restore the reporting requirement on financial disclosure forms, Democrats would ask House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for a vote on reversing the decision. She also said she was encouraging lawmakers to include the travel information to the Clerk's office and on their annual disclosure forms.
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."
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.
With polls showing that 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.
House members have had to include 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 trips to charity fundraisers and travel 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.