An article in today's Washington Post on the limits of conflict-of-interest rules laments that "the ethics system on Capitol Hill requires little more than annual public disclosure of financial assets and transactions." When we surveyed the ethics filings required of U.S. Representatives and their staff members, we reached two additional conclusions:
(1) Many ethics filings are required to be publicly reported, but are not available online
(2) Many ethics filings are not publicly reported at all
At a minimum, the House should publish a compilation of reports and statements required by Members of Congress, officers, and employees, like the Senate does [PDF]. (Of course, the Senate should publish their compilation online. See our list of Senate disclosures.) The House and Senate should make all of their reports available online, in real time, and in machine readable format. When there are privacy implications of making information available, such as the inclusion of home addresses and social security numbers, that information should be redacted, of course.
In the Internet age, there's no good reason to have documents available only in a room at Capitol Hill. The House has made some progress, for example, publishing its Statement of Disbursements of the House online, but there's more that both chambers should do.
To access House ethics filings that are publicly reported but not online, a person must go to the Legislative Resource Center in the basement of the Cannon building on Capitol Hill and print out each document. Although some of the files are in digital format, you're not allowed to copy them onto a thumb drive; you cannot burn the files to a CD; and you most certainly cannot email them. The LRC won't fax the documents to you, either, and you must pay $0.10 per page to print them out. So what can you only get in person?
- Legal expense fund disclosures
- Statements of recusal arising from negotiations for future employment for Members of Congress
- Franked mailings reports
What documents are filed, but not available at all?
- Notification of negotiations or agreement for future employment for Members of Congress (this is different than a statement of recusal, that must be filed when a conflict becomes actual)
- Statement of recusal arising from negotiations for future employment for congressional staff
Of course, even when documents are made available online, there are a number of problems accessing or using the data. Many of the documents are filed as PDFs, which makes it difficult or impossible to search them, or pull data from multiple files to find connections or trends. When the documents are available in an electronic format, often times you can only search for or download one document at a time, instead of downloading all the documents that meet your criteria at once. And many documents are only available for a handful of years before being taken down. The documents available online include:
- Financial disclosure reports
- Gift and travel filings
- Foreign travel reports and expenditures
- A post-employment lobbying restrictions database
- Lobbying disclosure filings
- Database of lobbying contributions
- Statement of disbursements of the House
Both chambers have taken steps to make some ethics documents available online, but they have much more to do.