The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

9. The Office of the Clerk of the House

Publishing Public Disclosure Reports in a Structured Format

Recommendation Summary

The clerk of the House can greatly improve government transparency and strengthen public confidence in the House of Representatives and its members by:

•improving the quality of disclosure rules by offering more guidance

•requiring disclosure reports to be filed electronically

•indexing more records

•using common identification codes for related databases

•publishing all data from disclosure reports in a structured, non-proprietary database

•making data available free of charge and in a timely manner

•enforcing the relevant House rules and statutes by conducting regular audits and evaluations of compliance

Overview of the Office of the Clerk of the House

Under the rules of the House of Representatives, the clerk is an administrative officer of the House, elected by the members every two years. The clerk’s jurisdiction includes nine offices that provide various services to members and to the public. With respect to transparency in the House, the primary offices of interest, other than the main Office of the Clerk, are the Office of Legislative Operations (OLO) and the Legislative Resource Center (LRC). According to the Web site of the Office of the Clerk:

The Office of Legislative Operations provides support pertaining to the Clerk’s legislative duties. Among the duties of this office are receiving and processing official papers; compiling and publishing the daily minutes of House proceedings; operating the electronic voting system and overseeing the recording of votes… The Office…also prepares the summaries and schedules of House activities published in the Daily Digest section of the Congressional Record. 72

These legislative responsibilities are important for transparency because the public needs access to the records of the House, including schedules, bill numbers, the official Journal and roll call tallies. The OLO does an exceptional job of handling these myriad duties on behalf of the members and the public, as evidenced by the smooth functioning of one of the most complex, active and professional legislative chambers in the world. The OLO’s responsibilities allow the public to stay apprised of the House’s activities, primarily through the office’s coordination with the Library of Congress in publication of legislative information on the THOMAS Web site.

Whereas the OLO primarily serves the members in their legislative duties, the LRC effectively serves the public as the House’s liaison:

The Legislative Resource Center (LRC) assists with the retrieval of legislative information and records of the House for congressional offices and the public. The Legislative Resource Center provides centralized access to all published documents originated and produced by the House and its committees, to the historical records of the House, and to public disclosure documents. 73

The LRC is the most important office for open government initiatives, particularly because it is responsible for making public disclosure reports for members and their staff, for candidates for election to the House of Representatives and for professional lobbyists who are compensated for directly contacting “covered officials� in the federal government.

The three primary reporting systems—for lobbying activities, candidate’s personal finances and for privately funded, “officially connected� travel—were originally envisioned by the members of the House as information depositories that the public could access. However, technological advances since the adoption of the House rules and statutes that govern these reporting processes have rendered them antiquated and, for the purpose of government transparency, useless to the public. As Frank Baumgartner, distinguished professor of political science at Penn State University and leading authority on the study of interest group politics, puts it plainly, “The level of public access to this information is just absolutely shameful. There is no reason, if people are interested in openness, that there should not be a fully searchable database available over the web, with the data downloadable in its integrity.� 74 If a reputable national expert on interest group politics and disclosure detects excessive barriers to accessing this information, the average American, without know-how or resources, could hardly be expected to overcome them.

As outlined below, Congress’s constituents would greatly benefit from improving the reporting processes for lobbying, personal financial disclosures and sponsored travel. Many of these changes can simply be accomplished within the existing jurisdiction of the clerk of the House. However, several recommendations may require official guidance from the House Committee on Administration, and a few—particularly those addressing the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA) 75 —compel legislative action by amending existing House rules and statutes.

Improving Lobbying Disclosure

The legislative intent behind the LDA is “to strengthen public confidence in government by replacing the existing patchwork of lobbying disclosure laws with a single, uniform statute which covers the activities of all professional lobbyists.� 76 Moreover, the LDA was intended to develop “a more effective and equitable system for administering and enforcing the disclosure requirements� of lobbyists. Although passage of the LDA represented an enormous advance in the public’s ability to know about private interests’ efforts to influence policy in Washington, the administration of the lobbying reports and enforcement of the statute need to be greatly improved to meet Congress’s objective. In particular, the House should consider increasing electronic accessibility to the lobbying data in a structured format and improving the reporting system so that it is “user-friendly,� not simply “filer-friendly.�

74 Personal communication between Baumgartner and Tim La Pira of Lobbying Research at the Center for Responsive Politics, on March 12, 2007
75 As amended by the Lobbying Disclosure Technical Amendments Act of 1998
76 H.Rept. 104-339

The House should do the following:

•Increase Electronic Accessibility

Problem: As of 2006, House rules require the clerk of the House to obtain all filings electronically. However, the clerk has yet to make these reports available online in a searchable format.

Solution: Make all data electronically downloadable, with separate data fields for each piece of information that is electronically filed.

•Make Reporting “User-Friendly,� not just “Filer-Friendly�

Problem: The design of the Semi-Annual Lobbying Report (Form LD-2) technically meets the requirements of the statute but does not solicit information in a “user-friendly� manner. Questions that cause confusion both for filers and for those who use the reports include:

Item #12 and #13 in conjunction with Item #24: Expenses/Income per issue area: The LDA requires registrants to file an overall estimate of money spent on lobbying only for a six-month period. The LDA also requires filers to update the issue areas. However, most users are concerned with the amount of money spent/earned for each issue area, especially when data are aggregated.

Solution: Require filers to provide good faith estimates, by percentage or by amount, of how much money they earned, if they are a firm, or spent, if they are a client, for each self-selected issue area.

Item #15: “General issue area code�: The question calls for responses on an attached list of general issue areas. However, these responses are neither clear nor mutually exclusive, leading to redundant, muddled and often misleading responses.

Solution: Develop a logical categorizing system with mutually exclusive, non-redundant response options. Specifically, the clerk should adopt the Policy Agendas Project Policy Topic coding scheme already developed for federal funds. 77

Item #16: “Specific lobbying issues�: The question calls for an open-ended response about the specific issues that the client lobbied on for the “general issue area code� identified in Item #15. The open-ended quality of the question causes filers to respond with vague and uninformative language.

Solution: Direct the clerk of the House, Senate secretary or the proposed Office of Public Integrity, to instruct filers to identify specific legislation by committee report, bill or amendment numbers, by titles assigned by the House and Senate or identified by the Library of Congress, by specific regulation proposals assigned by GPO, or by other identifying characteristics that allow the public to unequivocally determine the “specific lobbying issue.�

Item #17: “Houses of Congress…contacted: The statute defines a “lobbying contact� as “Any oral, written or electronic communication to a covered official that is made on behalf of a client,� but the question does not require filers to specify the covered official to whom the communication was made. Rather, the question asks more generally about Congress or a federal agency.

Solution: Require all filers to identify each covered official contacted on behalf of a client, not simply the chamber of Congress or federal agency for which the official is employed. Assign identification codes to each covered official contacted.

Item #12: “Lobbying Firms: Income�: Although the directions state that filers should report “all lobbying related income from the client (including all payments to the registrant by any other entity for lobbying activities on behalf of the client,� lobbying firms that act as subcontractors to another firm most often list the general contracting firm as their client. In practice, this question leads many subcontractors to hide the true client of the general contracting firm.

Solution: Require subcontracting firms to report both the general contracting firm on whose behalf they are lobbying and the general contractor’s client.

Item #14: “Reporting Method�: Organizations may choose among three options to report expenses: one defined by the Lobbying Disclosure Act and two defined by the Internal Revenue Code. This method leads to reporting inconsistencies because the statutory definition of “lobbying activities� varies among the three methods.

77 Bryan D. Jones (professor of political science, and director, Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of Washington), John Wilkerson (associate professor of political science and associate director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of Washington), Frank Baumgartner and their colleagues have collaborated on several multi-year projects funded by the National Science Foundation to develop and apply the Policy Topic coding scheme across several types of data. See http://www.policyagendas.org/index.html

Solution: Require all filers to use a single reporting method for expenses, based on a single statutory definition of “lobbying activities� drawn from sound Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

Item #18: “Name of each individual…�: Many individual lobbyists use multiple variations of their names, or have names that closely match those of other lobbyists, making it difficult to accurately identify a particular lobbyist.

Solution: Assign each lobbyist an identification number and require that number to appear with every mention of that lobbyist in a report.

Item #25: “Add the following affiliated organization�: The statutory definition of “affiliated organization� is unclear, so responses to this question are not uniform or reliable. This problem results in what many members and observers have criticized as “stealth lobbying� by ad hoc coalitions whose true members are unknown simply because they don’t independently contribute at least $10,000 to the coalition’s activities.

Solution: Eliminate this reporting loophole by statutorily defining “affiliated organization� to prohibit “stealth lobbying� by ad hoc coalitions.

Several state legislatures have accomplished these and other objectives for their lobbying disclosure processes, so there should be no reason that the United States House of Representatives cannot achieve similar or better results if there is the political will to do so.

Improving Personal Financial Disclosure

Unfortunately, the LRC only makes personal financial disclosure reports for candidates to the House of Representatives available by printing paper copies, for a fee of $0.10 per page, from a database kiosk located at B106 Cannon House Office Building. Not only are these reports unavailable electronically to the public, but their design and administration leads to inconsistent reports and useless findings. To address these flaws in financial disclosure, the Committee on House Administration should do the following:

•Eliminate the option of providing broad ranges for the amount of reported assets, liabilities and outside income. Request precise dollar amounts, or, at a minimum, good faith estimates rounded to a reasonable increment, such as $10,000.

•Adopt a single, uniform standard of reporting that does not simply include account statements in lieu of a complete report.

•Require disclosure to be completed and filed by a certified public accountant who has access to detailed guidance on reporting standards.

•Publicize new reports or amendments as they are filed.

•Conduct rigorous audits and investigations, and promptly and publicly report non-compliance to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Improving Privately Sponsored, Officially Connected Travel Disclosure

The LRC provides extremely limited access to information disclosed about privately funded, “officially connected� travel. Travel reports are not even organized in a database; rather, paper copies are simply stored in three-ring binders. The binders organize the reports only by the date LRC receives them, and they are not indexed to help users locate reports by traveler, members’ offices, sponsor, destination or any other logical criteria. If the House has determined that it is necessary, for ethical purposes, for its members and staff to report travel, then the fact that the clerk does not make this information available in any electronic format is unacceptable. The reports also include vague and meaningless responses, such as stating “fact-finding� or “education� as the purpose of a trip. Just as all legislative activities are recorded when they are conducted on the Capitol grounds, so too should officially connected activities be recorded when they occur outside the District of Columbia.

To address these flaws in financial disclosure, the Committee on House Administration should:

•Enforce standards for the travel report form, including requiring a detailed itinerary, documentation of attendance at meetings and social events and descriptions of official activities.

•Require disclosure to be certified and filed by the member’s or Committee’s designated senior staff member.

•Publicize new reports or amendments as they are filed.

•Conduct rigorous audits and investigations, and promptly and publicly report non-compliance to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Structuring Disclosure Information in an Electronically Accessible Format

All raw data contained in these reports should be made available in a non-proprietary, structured, downloadable format, and should be published online for public consumption with industry-standard features for searching, browsing, filtering and organizing data. Additionally, important data such as names of members and their staffs, lobbyists, travel sponsors and private organizations should be assigned identification codes. These unique identification codes should be developed in cooperation with the secretary of the Senate, the Library of Congress, the Federal Election Commission, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice Registration Unit, which oversees registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. These and other stakeholders in the legislative and executive branches should cooperate to link disclosure databases because all of these activities represent activities where the private sector interacts with government. Members and the public alike would be able to better understand how and why the federal government works with the private sector.

Recommendations for the Office of the Clerk of the House

The clerk of the House would greatly improve government transparency and strengthen public confidence in the House of Representatives and its members by:

•improving the quality of disclosure rules by offering more guidance, reducing reporting loopholes and eliminating vague questions that lead to unintelligible responses

•requiring disclosure reports—including reports filed by members and staff—to be filed electronically

•indexing with identification codes all relevant data regarding members’ personal offices, committee offices, federal agencies, covered federal officials, registered lobbyists and private entities, including lobbying registrants, clients and “officially connectedâ€? travel sponsors

•linking identification codes to legislative activities databases organized by the Library of Congress, campaign finances databases administered by the Federal Election Commission and government contract databases maintained by the Office of Management and Budget and other relevant federal agencies in the Executive Branch

•publishing all data from disclosure reports in a structured, non-proprietary Internet database that is both searchable and downloadable in its entirety and includes a master list of identification codes and links to relevant databases

•making data available free of charge as soon after its collection as is technologically feasible

•enforcing the relevant House rules and statutes by conducting regular audits and investigations for compliance, and immediately referring any violations to either the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct or the Department of Justice, depending on the appropriate jurisdiction

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