The Sunlight Foundation and nearly a dozen other groups today sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge her to add to the upcoming lobbying reform legislation a provision that would require members to electronically file their personal financial disclosure forms. These reports provide detailed information on each members' personal financial assets, and are critical to the public's understanding of whether their representative's private interests might conflict with his or her public duties as a lawmaker. Congress, which has required electronic filing of reports by lobbyists, campaign committees and 527 organizations, has failed to make personal financial disclosure reports available on the Internet-even in PDF format. Instead, the reports and the information contained in them are buried in the basement office of the House Clerk.
The House Ethics Manual states that "…public disclosure of assets, financial interests, and investments has been required as the preferred method of regulating possible conflicts of interest of Members of the House and certain congressional staff. Public disclosure is intended to provide the information necessary to allow Members' constituencies to judge their official conduct in light of possible financial conflicts with private holdings."
But because these reports are currently disclosed within the boundaries of the Capitol Hill, constituents from Maine to California, from Alaska to Florida, must either head to Washington themselves to get the necessary information or rely on the efforts of privately funded groups like the Center for Responsive Politics to make the information truly public.
In the Internet age, members of Congress should abide by and honor the purpose of filing a financial disclosure, and make the information available to all their constituents-in a searchable, sortable, publicly accessible database.
At the very least, personal financial disclosure statements should be scanned and images of them made readily available on taxpayer funded congressional Web sites for the American people to see. (Indeed, they're scanned into image files and stored on computers in the House.) By enacting this common sense reform, Congress would demonstrate not only its commitment to setting a high ethical standard but also an understanding that transparency is the only way to reach and maintain it.