Ethics & Transparency Reform Discussions


Conservative bloggers Soren Dayton and Mark Tapscott have been discussing possible ethics and transparency reforms that minority Republicans could push in Congress next year. The issues that they propose are as follows. From Dayton:

First, in both bodies, allow individuals to submit ethics complaints and require the various ethics committees to officially reject complaints.

Second, faster and more complete campaign finance proposals. All contributions down to $5, or even just all contributions, should be disclosed. Electronic contributions should be disclosed within 72 hours, and checks should be disclosed within 72 hours of deposit. These would be real-time disclosed on the FEC website. This would solve the problem that the Sunlight Foundation and others have tried to address with S. 223.

Third, put video of all publicly accessible business meetings online. I am sure that C-SPAN and Google would be happy to help. I know that many committees keep video of markups, but release neither the video nor transcripts.

Fourth, I am sure that there are things that are specific to disclosure of financial interests that we have learned out of the Rangel affair. Throw that in.

And from Tapscott:

First, apply the Freedom of Information Act to Congress. Most Americans resent that Congress passes laws it expects the rest of us to abide by but exempts itself. Ending the 42-year-old congressional FOIA exemption would be a major step in the right direction and one that would call the Democrats bluff on the transparency issue.

Second, require Members and their key personal and committee staff members (chiefs of staff, legislative directors, committee staff directors, legal counsels, possibly others) to maintain online daily calendars recording names and titles of all participants in meetings concerning any proposed legislation or expenditure of federal funds.

Third, abolish the absurd categorical values in the annual financial disclosures required of Members. Show us the money, the shares, the property, the consideration, Congressman. Require the same level of disclosure for key staff members included in the second suggestion.

I’m not going to get into the weeds of Dayton’s campaign finance proposal (there are equally persuasive arguments to be made about whether or not the extent of disclosure proposed by Dayton would fit into the reasoning behind Buckley v. Valeo’s upholding of campaign finance disclosure), but I will make a quick point about S. 223:

The whole crux behind S. 223 and the filing of Senate campaign finance reports is that Senators do not file with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Instead, senators file with the Senate Office of Public Records, which then sends the reports to the FEC. The law requiring electronic filing of campaign finance reports mandates e-filing only for those filing directly with the FEC. S. 223 does one thing: requires senators to file directly with the FEC, thus putting them under the same e-filing mandate as the House. Because of this issue, Dayton’s proposal, if it intends to fix the e-filing problem, would have to include the S. 223 language.

As regards the other proposals, these are my general thoughts:

1. Ethics committee: The whole process is a total mess, completely devasted by partisan tit-for-tat ethics complaints of the past. The Senate committee works far better than the House committee (as in it actually works) and is even required to submit annual disclosures about their activity (see last year’s here). The House committee should accept outside complaints and figure out a fair way to sort them. I don’t know if they need to publicly reject complaints.

2. Video online: A simple yes will do here. See The Open House Project for more.

3. Disclosure of financial interests: Tapscott’s proposal to eliminate the categorical values on personal financial disclosures is spot on. Sunlight has pushed for this and other changes to financial disclosure forms for a few years now. You see the legislative language of our proposal at

4. Schedules: Some lawmakers do post their daily schedule online. It’s a great way to increase accountability. Also, lobbyists should be required to disclose their meetings with the offices of covered officials as well.

I’m going to leave the application of FOIA to Congress alone for right now.