News Column

Heat leads to old policy

July 13, 2014

By Trish Choate, Times Record News, Wichita Falls, Texas



July 13--WASHINGTON -- After protests from watchdog groups and other critics, a congressional panel led by U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, reinstated a longtime requirement for House members to report free trips paid for by private groups when filing annual reports on their personal finances.

"The general public, led by some misguided journalists, believed that was not in the best interests of the House, and so we reversed it," Conaway, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said in an interview Friday. "Now everybody is happy."

Before the reversal, lawmakers still had to report privately funded trips to the House Clerk's Office, which makes the travel reports available online.

But critics protested that ditching the trip reporting requirement on lawmakers' financial statements undermined transparency. So the trip information will again be available in two places on the House Clerk's website through personal finance reports and a database.

But getting rid of the travel disclosure requirement on personal finance reports was the right policy decision, Conaway said. The ethics committee was trying to simplify and cut down on redundancy.

"It didn't fit the politics of it, so we reversed it," he said. After the decision to get rid of trip disclosures on personal finance reports came to light in a June 30National Journal article, a coalition of government watchdog groups sent a letter dated July 3 to the committee.

The coalition, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called for a reversal of the decision and more disclosure about travel such as certain trips paid for by a congressman's friend.

The same day, the committee announced a reversal of the decision, based on "feedback we have received from our fellow Members and after further consideration."

"The ethics committee quickly bowed to public pressure and reversed a terrible decision," Melanie Sloan, CREW executive director, said in a statement.

In any case, Conaway noted the committee changed nothing about requirements for the ethics committee to preapprove privately sponsored trips.

"We turn down trips, so you don't see those we've turned down. You just see the ones that are approved and the ones the members go on," he said.

Conaway emphasized that personal finance reports provide one line about a trip as long as 16 months after it was taken, but detailed reports filed within 15 days after the trip and quickly posted online include sponsors, itineraries and costs.

"I would think that information is the relevant information anybody would want," he said.

Comparing the one-line disclosures on personal finance reports and the detailed reports creates an opportunity for "gotcha" journalism, but it doesn't really help the system, he said.

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(c)2014 the Times Record News (Wichita Fallas, Texas)

Visit the Times Record News (Wichita Fallas, Texas) at www.timesrecordnews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Wichita Falls Times Record News (TX)


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