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Federal Government Fails to Meet Key Transparency Requirements

Federal Government Fails to Meet Key Transparency Requirements

Disclosure Mandates From 2007 Ethics Law – on Foreign Lobbying, U.S. House Members’ Financial Transactions and Congressional Travel – Remain Unfulfilled

June 28, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal government is failing to meet three key disclosure requirements from the latest major ethics law passed by Congress, according to a Public Citizen report (PDF) released today.

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA) was passed in response to a series of scandals involving Congress and foreign interests. The law mandated numerous transparency measures to improve the public’s insight into special interests’ efforts to influence lawmakers and other public officials. Public Citizen’s report, “Guilt by Omission,” outlines three measures that have not been fulfilled as called for in law.

Recent revelations of questionable stock trading by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to the government of Turkey demonstrate the role that public disclosure laws play in exposing conflicts of interests and other ethics issues. But the computer systems that the government uses to carry out disclosure laws are often cumbersome and outdated, hampering the public’s ability to gain access to the information they contain.

“When Congress demanded improved disclosure of the influence of special interests and foreign governments in 2007, it was in response to a legitimate need. Revelations over the past six months involving sitting members of Congress and foreign agents show that need to be greater than ever,” said Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen’s vice president of legislative affairs. “Congress should demand that its administrative offices and the U.S. Department of Justice address their shortcomings in complying with the 2007 ethics law.”

  • HLOGA calls for submissions pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which regards lobbying on behalf of foreign countries, to be made available “in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable manner, to the extent technically practicable.” Only a small percentage of data in FARA submissions is downloadable in a searchable, sortable manner.
  • The law calls for financial disclosure reports of U.S. House of Representatives members to be made available “in a format that is searchable, sortable, and downloadable, to the extent technically practicable.” The House does not provide a database of these reports, which include the details of stock transactions.
  • The law calls for the House to make data related to privately sponsored travel available in a searchable, sortable, downloadable database. While the House has created such a database, it omits multiple essential data points, including the costs of members’ trips. The House clerk’s office promised in 2008 to resolve that omission but to date has failed to do so.

“The public could sooner make sense of an abstract painting than some of the documents that the government publishes pursuant to disclosure laws,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and author of the report. “Disclosure laws are much more likely to serve their purpose if they are carried out with 21st century systems.”

Read the report (PDF).