Big changes come to congressional travel disclosures - Tucson News Now

Big changes come to congressional travel disclosures

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Transparency advocates are fighting a quiet charge to how members of Congress report their free travel. (Source: CNN) Transparency advocates are fighting a quiet charge to how members of Congress report their free travel. (Source: CNN)

WASHINGTON, DC (CNN) – Members of Congress have had the travel bug for years, visiting places like the old city in Israel to get a sense of the ages old problems there.

In fact, Israel, France, Turkey and Ireland rank among the popular destinations for lawmakers who are traveling there for free because private sponsors pick up the tab, totaling millions of dollars each year.

It used to be that each member of Congress must reveal who paid their tab on their personal financial disclosure forms, one of the most high-profile forms lawmakers must file.

Now that requirement has changed.

“It’s clearly been done to allow members of Congress to escape accountability for lavish trips,” said Melanie Sloan, ex-director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “When members of Congress take trips, watchdog groups and citizens ask questions, like why did they take this trip? And if they don't reveal it on their financial disclosure forms, people won't know about it."

Buried on page 35 of the House Ethics Committee’s guidelines provided to congressional members, it says the change, meaning the gift of travel, “regardless of its dollar value” and “paid for by a private source” does not need to be reported.

The unpublicized change went unnoticed until a reporter with the National Journal spotted it. The chairman of the House Transparency Caucus, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-IL, says that’s part of the problem.

"I only know what I read in the newspapers. I did not know this had taken place," Quigley said.

Now, Congress members must disclose all of their travel records to the clerk’s office instead. The House Ethics Committee says the information is still easily accessible and the change streamlines the process. Rep. Quigley disagrees.

"A wise Supreme Court Justice said that Sunshine is the best disinfectant. It doesn't hurt us to be duplicative, I think it helps us in a time when trust in Congress is at an all-time low, to be as open and accountable as we possibly can," Quigley said.

The trips in question are financed by private, nonprofit groups, usually billed as fact-finding missions.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is speaking out about the change in a statement, asking the House Ethics Committee to reverse course.

“While the committee’s aim was to simplify the disclosure process, Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less,” Pelosi said.

In a statement, the chief counsel for the ethics committee told CNN the panel “continues to enforce the requirement that all House members and staff who wish to accept privately sponsored travel must continue to receive prior approval from the ethics committee and to file detailed paperwork about any suck trip within 15 days. Neither of those requirements has been changed or diluted in any way.”

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