Transparency in the U.S. Congress

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Disclosure by public officials and those working in the public sphere in Washington is mandated, in varying degrees, by both federal laws and congressional rules. Disclosure is often referred to as transparency, a business term appropriated to the political realm to designate openness and accountability. Those who work in or lobby the U.S. Congress are subject to a number of disclosure regulations that include campaign contributions, lobbying expenses, personal finances, private travel, and legislative activities.

Contents

What is reported

Political Contributions

Political Contributions

Where: Members of the House file directly with the Federal Election Commission and Senators file with the Secretary of the Senate.

What: Members of and candidates for Congress are required to report all contributions and expenditures to their campaign committees and political action committees (PACs).

When: Campaign committee reports are filed quarterly and pre- and post-election. Political Action Committee (PAC) reports can be filed quarterly or monthly.

Governed by: Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

In 1971 the Federal Election Campaign Act was signed into law creating the current system of disclosure for contributions to and expenditures by federal political campaigns. FECA was subsequently amended in 1974 to place legal limits on campaign contributions, limits on campaign spending, and to create an enforcement agency, the Federal Election Commission. (The campaign spending limits were found to be unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo.)

Since then members of Congress and candidates to Congress have been filing their campaign contributions and expenditures for inspection by both the FEC and the public.

The House requires that all campaign committees and political actions committees that raise $50,000 or more in contributions must file electronically with the FEC. The Senate, however, does not mandate electronic filing and instead requires Senators to file with the Secretary of the Senate who then must deliver to the FEC these reports in paper form.

Disclosure of Purposes of Political Campaign Spending: The FEC requires that filers include a "purpose" for each expenditure listed in their campaign spending report. The FEC, however, allows filers to "characterize most of their spending as they like". On December 14, 2006 the FEC ruled on "generally acceptable" and "generally unacceptable" purposes used in filing. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, the FEC issued a list of 18 "generally acceptable" purposes and 79 "generally unacceptable" purposes leaving "everything else somewhere in-between." This ambiguity in listing purposes allows filers to list hundreds, if not thousands, of different purposes on one report.

Providing the public with such a varied list of purposes allows for obfuscation of committee and party activities. A shining example of this problem is the Republican National Committee's (RNC) report filed in 2003-4. The RNC's report contained a total of 1,964 purposes for expenditures. The Campaign Finance Institute recommends the FEC "require all filers to categorize their spending within, say, 15-30 functionally inclusive categories so the public (and policymakers like the FEC itself) could adequately understand their full purposes."[1]

Personally-financed campaigns: Candidates can opt to personally finance their campaigns. These contributions are regulated by the “Millionaire’s Amendment” provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The amendment increases contribution limits for House and Senate candidates running against someone who is personally financing their campaign. According to the FEC, if a House candidate faces a candidate whose personal spending is greater than $350,000, then the candidate may incur increased limits on campaign donations. [2] [3].

For a senatorial race, the amount that may trigger contribution limit is the total of $150,000 plus the amount equal to the state’s voting age population, multiplied by $0.05.[4] If a candidate running for the Senate exceeds twice this amount in campaigning, then the opponent may receive an increased limit from campaign donors.

Lobbying Disclosure

Lobbyist Disclosure

Where: Filed with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.

What: Lobbyists who lobby the Congress must register and file reports providing an estimation of income related to lobbying for a specific client and which federal branches, departments, and agencies they lobbied.

When: Lobbyist disclosure forms are filed biannually.

Governed by: Lobbyist Disclosure Act of 1995.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 repealed the previous law governing lobbying of the federal government, the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, and instituted a much more stringent system for lobbyist registration and disclosure. The Act greatly expanded the previous definition of "lobbyist" and created the system of semiannual disclosure by lobbyists.

The Senate passed on January 18, 2007 the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 which mandates new disclosure requirements for registered lobbyists. Lobbyists would be forced to file quarterly reports and file new reports detailing their campaign contributions and the fundraisers they throw for politicians and their election efforts. The lobbying disclosure portions of the bill require the House of Representatives to pass a similar measure.

Lobbyist disclosure forms can be found at online either the Senate Office of Public Records or at the Open Secrets Lobbying Database.

Personal Financial Disclosure

Personal Financial Disclosure

Where: Filed with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.

What: Members of Congress and some staffers must file reports detailing assets belonging to them or their spouse, earned income of both the member and spouse, any financial transactions over the past year, private travel received, gifts received, positions held outside of government, and agreements and arrangements for future employment or future income.

When: Personal financial disclosure forms are filed annually.

Governed by: Ethics in Government Act of 1978, House Rule XXVI, Senate Rule XXXIV.

Since the passage of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 members of Congress and certain members of their staff have been required to file personal financial disclosure reports with the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate.

Any staffer paid more than 120 percent of the GS0915 minimum pay rate must file a personal financial disclosure form. If a member's staff does not employ someone at such a high rate than the member must designate any one of his staffers to file a disclosure form.

Personal financial disclosure forms are filed on May 15th and can be accessed by visiting either the Office of Public Records in the Senate or the Legislative Resource Center in the House of Representatives.

The information contained in personal financial disclosures has often led to unflattering stories about Members, including real estate deals made by Rep. Dennis Hastert and Rep. Gary Miller. Rep. Duke Cunningham was busted for bribery after a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune noticed that Cunningham's personal financial disclosure forms listed a house sale to a defense contractor for significantly above market value.[1]

Personal financial disclosure forms can be found online at the websites of the independent groups Center for Responsive Politics or Political Money Line.

Travel Gifts

Travel Gifts

Where: Filed with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.

What: Members and staff who receive travel gifts from an outside source that is not a registered lobbyist or foreign agent must file a reimbursement form that must contain the time, place, and purpose of the trip, an estimate of travel, lodging, and meal expenses, and the names of the member of Congress, employee, and family members on the trip.

When: The reimbursement form must be filed within 30 days of receipt of the travel gift.

Governed by: Ethics in Government Act of 1978, House Rule XXV, and Senate Rule XXXV.

The Ethics Government Act of 1978 mandated that all gifts of travel received by members and their staff must be reported for review by Congressional Ethics Committees and the general public.

The reports, which only contain estimates of the amount given for travel, lodging, and food, must be filed within 30 days of receipt of travel. Members must note all family members who accompany them on the trip and the estimated cost of their travel, lodging, and food. Staffers who accept travel must file the same form and get signed approval from the member.

Travel gifts are regulated by House Rule XXV in the House of Representatives and by Rule XXXVin the Senate. The forms are filed in paper form and are kept for viewing at the Legislative Resource Center in the House (which is in the basement of an office building) and at the Office of Public Records in the Senate. These forms cannot be found on any government websites.

A provision in the Senate's Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, if adopted by the House, would create an online database of travel reports.


527 committee

527 Committee

Where: Filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

What: Nonprofit political committees formed under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code must file reports detailing their contributions and expenditures.

When: Filing is done either quarterly or monthly.

Governed by: Internal Revenue Code Section 527 and Public Law 106-230.

"527" groups, named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that created them, are primarily formed to influence elections. 527s initially were not obligated to disclose their donors or their political activities. On July 1, 2000, President Clinton signed Public Law 106-230 which "required" 527s "to notify the IRS of their existence within 24 hours of organizing and to file periodic reports disclosing their contributions and expenditures."[5] 527s must disclose donors who contribute $200 or more and all exenditures to the IRS in either quarterly or monthly reports. The reports are filed electronically and are accessible at the IRS's website. 527 groups do not have campaign finance restrictions as PACs and campaign committees do and do not file with the FEC.

Recent attempts to create campaign finance restrictions on 527 groups have been initiated in Congress and have taken the form of the 527 Reform Act of 2005 and the House version of the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006. The language pertaining to 527s in the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 would impose contribution limits on 527s while also eliminating restrictions on party-coordinated expenditures.

Legal Expense Funds

Legal Expense Funds

Where: Filed with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.

What: Members of Congress who create a legal expense fund must disclose all contributions and expenditures as campaign committees and PACs do.

When: Legal Expense Fund reports are filed quarterly.

Governed by: House Rule XXV and Senate Rule XXXIV.

A member of Congress may create a legal expense fund trust to receive money to handle legal bills in connection with "the individual's candidacy for or election to federal office; the individual's official duties or position in Congress (including legal expenses incurred in connection with an amicus brief file in a Member's official capacity, a civil action by a Member challenging the validity of a law or federal regulation, or a matter before the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct); a criminal prosecution; or a civil matter bearing on the individual's reputation or fitness for office."[6]

A legal expense fund set up by a member of or candidate to the House can receive up to $5,000 from an individual in contributions per year. Legal expense funds in the Senate can receive up to $10,000 from an individual per year. Lobbyists may not give to legal defense funds. House rules allow corporate and union contributions to legal expense funds while Senate rules do not.

Legal expense funds must disclose all contributions and expenses just as campaign committees and political action committees do. Both House and Senate legal expense funds file quarterly by paper only. Representatives file with the Clerk of the House and Senators file with the Secretary of the Senate. These filings are not available online. The laws governing the disclosure of legal expense funds areHouse Rule XXV(5)(c)(3) and Senate Rule XXXIV.

Where to Find Information

Information Reported on Government Sites
Legislative Activity Committees Reports Filed in Congress Reports Filed For Congress Media
Bills and Resolutions Full List of Committees in the House of Representatives FEC Reports CRS Reports (Not available to public) Floor Deliberations
Congressional Record Full List of Committees in the U.S. Senate Travel Gift Reports (N/A Online) Congressional Budget Office Reports Committee Hearings
Member Votes Printed Transcripts of Hearings Personal Financial Disclosure (N/A Online) Government Accountability Office Reports
Congressional Schedule Audio/Video See Individual Websites Lobbying Disclosure
Daily Floor Proceedings Committee Reports
Rules for the House of Representatives
Rules for the Senate
Import Tariff Breaks Sought by Members

Laws Governing Transparency & Disclosure

The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 (amended 1911 & 1925)

Enacted in 1910 FCPA established the first public disclosure rules at the federal level by requiring national party committees to file reports of their expenditures and contributions. It also limited spending by political candidates, however this statute was overturned by the Supreme Court. Enforcement of the law lay with Congress and so there was little enforcement. In 1925 the law was strengthened but enforcement remained with Congress preventing rigorous enforcement.[7][8]

Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938

FARA was passed in 1938 to require that information from foreign sources be identified to the public. The act requires people who lobby, engage in political activities, or acts in a public relations capacity for foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice. FARA was the first law that required individuals lobbying the government to disclose information about their activities.[9]

Main article: Foreign Agents Registration Act

Online access

In May 2007, the Justice Department launched a searchable online database of filings under the act. A spokesperson stated “This has been underway for years...Part of the statute calls for this to be publicly available and we are just doing it in a way that is more user-friendly.” Previously, the FARA database had been available to the public only at the agency’s Washington D.C. office, during limited hours.[2] (see the database)

Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946

FRLA provided the first system of registration and financial disclosure for lobbyists not associated with foreign governments. The law was found to be incredibly inadequate as the definition of "lobbyist" was pared down to "'paid lobbyists' who 'directly communicate' with Members of Congress on 'pending legislation.'" In 1991 a study found that of the 13,500 lobbyists in Washington, DC 10,000 were not registered.[10] [11]

Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971

The Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) created the current system of disclosure of contributions for federal campaigns. FECA was subsequently amended in 1974 to place legal limits on campaign contributions, limits on campaign spending, and to create an enforcement agency, the Federal Election Commission.

The Supreme Court struck down two provisions of the 1974 amendments to the Act, namely limits on spending by campaigns and on the amount of money a candidate could donate to his or her own campaign in Buckley v. Valeo (1976).

FECA was further amended in 1979 to streamline the disclosure process and expand the role of political parties. This, however, gave rise to a host of consequences allowing political donors to circumvent contribution limits by donating to a political committee rather than a single candidate. In addition, political committees did not have to disclose from whom they received contributions, as did political parties and candidates. These types of fund-raising and contributions made to committees rather than candidates or parties came to be known as "soft money."

Ethics in Government Act of 1978

The Ethics in Government Act, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, requires members of Congress, executive branch officials, and certain congressional staffers to disclose all earned income; all stocks, bonds, and property; investments and debts; spouse's income, if any; any positions held outside of government in a business, labor, or nonprofit organization.

Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 repealed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 and instituted a much more stringent system for lobbyist registration and disclosure. The Act greatly expanded the previous definition of "lobbyist" and created the system of semiannual disclosure by lobbyists.

Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) banned "soft money" from being contributed to federal or state candidates and national, state, and local political parties. BCRA also prohibits supposedly non-partisan "issue ads" funded by soft money from corporations and labor unions - those referring to candidates for federal election without expressly advocating their election or defeat -- in the 60 days prior to a general election, or 30 days prior to a primary election; requires the disclosure of sources of finance for "electioneering communications" in excess of $10,000 per year; and raised the legal limits of hard money that can be raised.

Main article: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was introduced by Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on April 6, 2006 and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Reform. The committee unanimously approved the bill and sent it to the full Senate for consideration. The bill ultimately passed the Senate and House after overcoming two "secret holds". (For the full story see: Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act) The bill contained the following:

  • Require full disclosure of all entities and organizations receiving Federal funds.
  • Create a searchable electronic database of all Federal contracts and grants.

Transparency & Disclosure Legislation (109th Congress)

For an accounting of bills and resolutions related to transparency and disclosure in the 109th Congress please follow the link to the page on that topic.

Articles and Resources

Resources

Non-government websites and organizations

Articles

References

  1. Stern, Marcus. "Lawmaker's home sale questioned," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 12, 2005.
  2. Alex Knott, "Foreign Lobbying Database Up and Running," Congressional Quarterly, May 30, 2007.
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