The U.S. is trying to monitor the kinds of transactions that contributed to the 2008 financial crash, and subsequent recession, but the effort has shot itself in the foot, all for lack of a data standard. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been tasked with oversight of credit default swaps, but their attempts to define a standard for reporting in this previously unmonitored market have not worked out as planned.
The legislation, signed by President Obama earlier this week, specifically targeted two sections of the law. Section 8, which deals with disclosure and reporting for members of Congress and their staff, and Section 11 which deals with disclosure and reporting for executive branch employees.
The legislation ensures that most federal employees will not see their personal financial disclosure documents posted publicly online. These documents are already public information. Keeping them off the internet for the sake of "security through obscurity" sets a bad precedent by making public information effectively inaccessible.
Members of Congress, the President, Vice President, candidates for those offices, and certain high ranking executive branch officials would still have their disclosures posted online. But, provisions in the law would basically nullify the effectiveness of online disclosure.
The law does not require high ranking officials and members of Congress to file their personal financial disclosures electronically, it merely allows them to if they so choose. Even worse, while the disclosures will still eventually make their way online, the new law ensures that they will not be searchable, sortable, or particularly useful to anyone.
We have created a redline version of the STOCK Act showing exactly how the new law changes the original legislation. The action starts on page 4.
Congress has been delaying implementation of the STOCK Act, largely out of fear over what could happen if disclosures go online. A new report from the National Academy of Public Administration says those fears are well-founded. But its reasoning is flawed, and its recommendations -- which amount to security through obscurity -- are badly wrong-headed. If there are problems with the disclosures mandated by STOCK, let's fix them. Ignoring them and hoping that obscurity will prevent bad things from happening is not only short-sighted, it's dangerous.
The widely reported possibility of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice's nomination to become secretary of state now has a lot of people talking about a Sunlight Reporting Group story, first published almost exactly a year ago, about her stock holdings in TransCanada, the company trying to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. So we thought we'd show you what all the chatter is about.
Rice's holdings in the company that wants to pump tar sands from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico are becoming another flash point in the debate over her much-discussed but still-unofficial candidacy to replace Hillary Clinton. That's because the State Department will play a key role in determining whether the international pipeline -- which it already held up once last year -- will ultimately go forward.
It's already provoked an acrimonious debate and massive amounts of lobbying that crosses the U.S.-Canada border and reached all the way to Europe. Last year, Sunlight dove into at least nine databases to track it all down.
The Office of Government Ethics took an important step towards greater transparency yesterday when they launched an improved system for online access to public financial disclosure reports.
The Sunlight Foundation has advocated for online access to personal financial disclosure reports for years. The House of Representatives started putting their reports online in 2008. The Senate and Judiciary do not provide online access to their reports.
The new system puts executive branch financial disclosure documents (SF 278 and OGE Form 278) in one place and simplifies the request and retrieval process. Requests for copies of certified public financial disclosure reports and Certificates of Divestiture for people nominated by the President to Senate confirmable executive branch positions can be submitted online, with access to results available in seconds. Ethics agreements and waivers are available on-demand and interested parties will not have to submit a formal request to view them.
In 2009 the White House began providing online access to SF 278 Request Forms. The move was an improvement over the old paper system, but the process was still time consuming and complicated. There was no central hub of documents. Instead, after a formal request was made the reports were located and sent via email. The new system represents a significant upgrade.
The information now available online covers individuals appointed after January 20, 2009. If you are looking for information prior to that date you will still need to submit a paper form, available on the OGE website.
We are happy that the executive branch is joining the House in making their reports readily available to the public. The Senate and Judiciary should join the Executive and House of Representatives and put their information online to ensure that the sun shines on financial disclosure reports across the government.
Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey wrote this post.
Are Members of Congress using inside information gathered as part of their jobs to make financial investments (and get rich...er?) That question is at the heart of yesterday's 60 Minutes report. Reporter Steve Kroft accused current House Speaker John Boehner and former speakers Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert, among others, of engaging in a legal form of insider trading. (We first broke the Hastert story in 2006.) What the story didn't explore was how transparency aided Hoover Institution research fellow Peter Schweizer in drawing these connections, and how better transparency would deter problems from arising.
Schweizer's analysis drew upon congressional financial disclosure reports, one of many ethics-related documents that the House and Senate make available to the public. While all these documents should be available online, in real-time, and in machine-readable formats, most are not.* Usually, members of the public must physically travel to the House or Senate and print out ethics documents, one page at a time -- you will not be provided an electronic copy, no matter how much you ask, even though the documents are already digitized. In fact, we compiled the first public list of all the "publicly-available" documents from the House and Senate, with information about how to obtain the reports and what they contain. We also called for the GAO to finally live up to its statutory obligation to review whether the personal financial disclosure forms should be updated.
Looking at the financial disclosure reports, only the House publishes them online; the Senate archaically requires you to go to the Senate in person to ask for this information. If you want to analyze the Senate's financial disclosure reports, you have to re-key the data into a computer by hand; there's no database to facilitate analysis. This is equally true if you want to see which Member or senior staffer has been promised a plum job by an outside company, foreign travel expense reports, legal defense fund contributions, and more. If you're not in Washington, you'd better be willing to book a plane ride to DC; otherwise, you're out of luck.
We won't know how much effort it took to make the connection between congressional activity and investing, which formed the basis of the 60 Minutes report and Schweizer's well-timed book "Throw Them All Out," but it likely was considerable. Without better data, it is hard to tell who actually benefited from trading on inside information. We also don't know the extent to which investors mine data from capitol hill about industry activities to help make investment decisions, and we can't know that until legislation like the STOCK Act (which we wrote about here) becomes law.
But what we do know is that the House and Senate can do much more to be transparent. They need to make it easier for the public to see who is trying to influence them, how they behave while in office, and the work that they're doing. That's why we are advocating for lobbying reform, ethics reform, and a lot more Sunlight on the process.
Update 1: These documents are not available online from the House or Senate, but some third parties, such as the Center for Responsive Politics and Legistorm, have digitized many of the documents. However, it's not always possible to access the data in bulk, and it is possible that the third parties introduced errors in the digitization process.
Update 2: I should also mention that Sunlight gave a grant to CRP for digitization of the personal financial disclosure forms, travel disclosures, and other documents in 2007.
It’s time to think big: The Super Congress situation is developing at an incredibly fast rate and we want to be able to respond as fast as possible -- both as an organization committed to greater government transparency and as citizens who live in a democracy.
Right now, the rules on the books say almost nothing about about how transparent this super committee’s process has to be. That means that a body of 12 members of Congress will get to operate totally above the reach of accountability (in the form of public meetings and financial and lobbying disclosure) to determine one of the most significant deals in American history: how to slice $1.5 trillion from the national debt.
We’ve written about this issue a few times (here and here, for example) and have even built a coalition of partners to support our five leading recommendations for committee openness, but now we want to hear from you.
Calls to congressional offices and district meetings with representatives are great ways to get our voices heard (and you may be hearing from us again about taking these actions), but what more can we do? America, we need to get riled up: The recommendations made by this committee will have a tangible impact our country and our lives. Now is the time to get creative.
Some (rough!) ideas we’ve thought up:
- Guerrilla theatre productions of Super Congress committee meetings in public spaces
- Asking folks to hold rallies in the districts of the 12 selected members of the committee
- Smoke machine flash mobs. (As in “smoke and mirrors” or the smokey backroom deals of lobbyists....Get it?)
- Asking business to hold their meetings outside.
- Get a congressional representative to write a “Dear Colleague” letter in support of opening the Super Congress. (Oh, wait, Reps Quigley and Renacci beat us to it.)
So, got any great ideas? Got any less-than-great-but-possibly-salvageable ideas? Brainstorm with us in the comments -- and be sure to like/up-vote the good ones, too!
For more updates on this campaign, join us at http://sunlightfoundation.com/opensupercongress.
Kudos to andymangold for the kicking image.
The Judicial Conference's ability to redact judicial financial disclosure reports will be extended indefinitely if Congress adopts H.R. 1059, which was approved today by the House Judiciary Committee. The legislation's purpose is to ensure the "security of judges and other judicial employees from intimidation and threats," according to Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. Without legislative action, the provision allowing for the redaction of "personal and sensitive" information "to the extent necessary to protect the individual who filed the report or a family member of that individual" expires on December 31, 2011.
On its face, giving the courts permanent redaction ability is reasonable in this limited context, but may have an unintended consequence. The same paragraph that grants the ability to redact financial information also requires the Administrative Office of the Courts to submit an annual report on the use of this redaction power. The annual report allows the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to determine if the redaction authority is being used properly. It includes the number and nature of the redactions, steps put in place to make sure litigants can still determine if there's a conflict of interest, and principles used to guide redaction authority. Without an expiration date, will Congress will prompted to pay attention the annual reports to ensure the redaction authority is used properly?
There is an obvious and elegant solution.The annual reports should be published online in one central location so that the public can act as a watchdog. The courts already publicly report on other aspects of judicial business, so why not this? (As far as we can tell, the reports themselves to not contain information affecting judicial security.)
We believe that this public disclosure for the annual reports make sense, but if Congress is going to update the financial disclosure provision of this law, the Ethics in Government Act, it should go further. The financial disclosure forms themselves should be available online, for all files (which include all three branches government), in one central location. Moreover, the provision of law permitting a fee to be charged for reproduction and mailing of these reports should be eliminated. And people wishing to access the reports should not be required to provide information about themselves. Finally, because maintaining documents already placed online is virtually costless, electronic versions of documents should be retained indefinitely.
HR 1059 presents the opportunity to make this disclosure law make sense in the electronic age.
Last week my colleague Bill Allison wrote about the new role of Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as a lobbyist for her newly formed Liberty Consulting. This follows Thomas' role as the head of a post-Citizens United nonprofit known as Liberty Central. Allison noted that Virginia Thomas has left a "paperless, pixel-less" trail behind her:
The filing shows that, at least during its first two months, Liberty Central did not pay salaries to any of its officials, including Thomas, who is listed as the organization's president. Liberty Central did not disclose any activity to the Federal Election Commission, which tracks the independent expenditures and electioneering communications of outside organizations, nor did it register as an independent expenditure committee--groups that, in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, can raise and spend unlimited funds attempting to influence federal elections as long as they do not coordinate with candidates. Because federal election and lobbying disclosure laws explicitly state the kinds of activity that require disclosure, groups that have a political purpose can influence elections and lobby while avoiding disclosure.
Thomas' paper trail may not only be paperless and pixel-less, according to Slate's Dave Weigel it may also be needless. Weigel's contention is that Liberty Central, Thomas' Tea Party-inspired nonprofit, did little to nothing during the 2010 midterms. The lack of disclosure that Allison notes shows that Liberty Central did not engage in the same types of electoral activities as the other conservative groups that played hard in last fall's elections. Trusting Weigel's knowledge of internal conservative group advocacy, I'm going to believe his contention that Liberty Central did little grassroots organizing as well. It really doesn't look like Liberty Central did much of anything.
Why write about this? Weigel ends his post on Thomas with a question, "But what if she's not much of a conspirator? What if she's more of a dilettante?" What if she's more a dilettante, indeed!
If she is totally ineffective and a complete non-player in actual conservative politics, than I am inclined to conclude that she is playing her marriage to a Supreme Court justice to her financial advantage. And to what advantage do contributors to her "political" efforts seek?
This, I believe, is a serious question. Should a Supreme Court justice's spouse use their marriage as a way to gain donor support for political causes? What more should be disclosed to assuage the public's concern of a conflict of interest?
Considering that Clarence Thomas failed to report his wife's salary on his public financial disclosure for years, I find this issue to be in need of a serious response. In other cases, including that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, more disclosure than mandated was asked of a person appointed to office to assuage public concerns about conflicts of interest. This is one of those times.
Election season is in high gear, as you've no doubt noticed. With it comes the normal barrage of ads, phone calls, door knocks, and big pieces of glossy mail telling you who to vote for and why you should vote. Organizers and strategists on hundreds of campaigns across the country are frantically trying to figure out the best way, whether online or offline, to get you out to vote for their candidate. What they don’t tell you (or your potentially less politically aware friends and family) is who’s funding all of those campaign efforts to get you to vote, and who those candidates will be listening to after the polls close in eight days.
Introducing the Influence Explorer Postcard. If you’ve used Influence Explorer before, it’ll look pretty familiar. The Influence Explorer Postcard lets you choose which candidate to highlight and displays the top contributors and contributing industries to that candidate or candidates on a postcard. You can even opt to choose both candidates in a given race for side-by-side comparison. Then, from the comfort of your home computer, polish off your postcard with a personal note to a friend or family member that you want to clue in about who has the real influence is this election before your friends vote, preview the card and hit send. No post office visits or stamps required.
This is a cool way to make sure that at least one piece of mail your friends get over the next eight days amidst the flood of campaign messaging is meaningful and transparent. And if you’re snail-mail challenged like me, this is a great way to make an offline impact online.
Business note: sadly, direct mail isn't free. The cost of production for this postcard is $2.00, which you can pay using an Amazon account right from the site. If, like us, you’re excited about the ability to take your online impact offline, the opportunity to shine a light on the influence of money in politics to those who matter most to you, or you just like Sunlight and want to help us out, we ask that you chip in one extra dollar to help us hit our goal of 1,500 new small donors before the end of this year. (We’re currently at just over 500 thanks to the generosity of many of you who have given so far). Given the overwhelming amount of money being spent on the midterms this year, we hope an extra dollar isn’t too much to pay to help make this election just a little more transparent.
Check it out and let us know what you think in the comments.