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Put Personal Financial Disclosures Online

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The House Judiciary Committee is currently deciding what will or will not be included in the House’s ethics reform bill. While the Committee is talking about requiring greater transparency from lobbyists they aren’t taking simple steps to make the House more transparent. Last week, Ellen proposed that the Judiciary Committee take one simple step to make the House more transparent by putting personal financial disclosure forms online. (This is also a recommendation in The Open House Project report.) You can help make this happen by following this link and contacting Speaker Pelosi and the members of the Judiciary Committee and asking them to include a provision putting personal financial disclosures online in the ethics bill. If you want to know why you should care about the online disclosure of personal financial disclosure forms you can read Ellen’s post and continue reading this post. (See also the Congresspedia entry on personal financial disclosure.)

The first reason to put personal financial disclosure online is the sheer level of difficulty in obtaining them. In the absence of private sites like Open Secrets you have to hop on a plane and fly to Washington to view your Member’s personal financial disclosure. Once in Washington you’d have to go to Capitol Hill, specifically the basement in the Cannon Office Building to find the Legislative Resource Center. There you would be required to give your name, address, and occupation to obtain a copy of this disclosure form and then you’d have to pay to copy it yourself. If that’s not reason enough for why you’d want these documents online you can continue reading.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Koreagate, and a myriad of smaller scandals Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act. This Act required Members (along with executive branch officials and others) to file annual personal financial disclosures. The purpose of the financial disclosure provision is to make public the personal finances of lawmakers and executive branch officials so as to dissuade these targeted government officials from engaging in personal behavior that may constitute a conflict of interest and providing public documentation so that if they are violating some rule, protocol, or law or are maintaining unseemly relationships the news media can inform their constituents.

This is what we’d call a targeted transparency measure; a targeted item (Members’ personal finances) is made transparent to promote a goal (less conflicts of interest; less corruption) with an enforcement mechanism (public flogging in the news media that could lead to investigations). The purpose of targeted transparency is usually to create a greater amount of choice by providing essential information to a consumer. In this case the consumer is the constituent or voter and the choice is whether they want this person, the Member of Congress, to continue to represent them or not. But in the current conception there is a middle man -- the news media.

By putting personal financial disclosure forms online voters can go to the Clerk of the House or the Senate website and discover whether their Member’s financial information is anything to fuss about. There’s no need to wait to find out what your newspaper’s Washington Bureau (if they even have one) has to say about your congressman’s finances. This also would prevent those often silly articles about an item in a Member’s personal financial disclosure that may or may not be controversial but the reporter is going to report about the controversy over whether it is controversial (see this recent Associated Press article or this Washington Post article).

Instead of relying on “check-box” journalism about Members of Congress you can check for yourself to see if your congressman is selling land to some unidentified Limited Liability Corporation, or if your congressman sold their stock just before the price dropped, or if they are affiliated with or own stock in controversial organizations. Or if they just happen to own stock and a summer house. Or, like some Members, have a lot of debt.

Putting personal financial disclosure forms online is just a piece of the puzzle in creating a system of user-centered (in this case constituents and voters) information so that constituents and voters can make better choices and share information to create those better choices. Better choices should lead to political representation more attuned to the needs of constituents.