June 11, 2009

"... as much shadow as sunlight"

Just once I'd like to write the headline "Congress members comprehensively disclose information in an accessible manner." But it won't be today.

Despite loud proclamations of tough ethics reform, our elected representatives still routinely skirt the spirit of disclosure laws. Congressmen and their staffs carefully prepare personal finance reports, often the key to uncovering conflicts of interest or outright corruption, to reveal as little damaging information as possible.

Home mortgages, the purchase of big-ticket items such as expensive paintings and the value of stock and other investments are among the pieces of their personal financial picture they're allowed to keep to themselves. Good-government advocates say it makes corruption harder to root out.

Part of the problem is the extremely lax rules that govern these disclosures:

Members of Congress can spend freely on art, jewelry, antiques, private planes, speedboats and other valuables but they don't need to disclose them if they consider the possessions held for personal enjoyment rather than investments.

I wonder if former Rep. William Jefferson ever thought about claiming that the $90,000 in his freezer was "held for personal enjoyment" because it made his ice cream taste better.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says it best with:

"With the citizen muckrakers and bloggers digging into government data of all kinds and with the momentum for electronic filing and transparency, the commitment to transparency by this administration, this should be the natural hour for these reports to be improved," Krumholz said.