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Ney Orders House to Go Digital on Disclosure Forms

At long last, the digital age is reaching the House of Representatives: Lobbyists who fill out their disclosure forms with pen and ink and spirit them to the Clerk of the House by U.S. mail will be out of luck next year.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, has directed the Clerk of the House to stop accepting the lobbyists’ forms by mail. Only electronically filed reports will be welcome after Dec. 31.

Ney has also directed Clerk Jeff Trandahl to develop an electronic system for handling Members’ travel and honoraria reports, which currently exist only in paper format.

Although Members would keep the option of filing travel and honoraria reports on paper, Ney said, “I would probably urge people to do electronic filing.”

Ney added that he began discussions about bringing the House lobbying disclosures online well before the recent controversies over privately funded Member travel. (Ney himself has been dogged by reports of his own connections to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under federal investigation.)

“Now that the whole travel dispute has come here, I thought this would be a perfect way to file electronically for Members,” Ney said.

Ney added that filing online would give Members an electronic receipt, so they wouldn’t have to worry about whether the Clerk’s office received the forms.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent June 29, Ney wrote: “This system will not only make the House more efficient by reducing staff time for the processing of paperwork, but equally important, it will make the House more accountable and transparent to the American public.”

However, critics say that Ney’s effort does little to further that goal because it does not actually mandate that the Members’ or lobbyists’ electronic forms be available online to citizens.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Ney’s letter is “just about ease for the Clerk’s office. It still does not make those forms available on the House Web site.”

The whole point of those disclosure forms, Sloan said, is to make them available to the public. “But if the only public that can find out is the public that can go down to [Room] B-106 [in the Cannon House Office Building], then that’s not effective disclosure. If the House were serious about public disclosure, which it clearly is not, all this material would be available on the Web.”

But Ney insisted that that is the ultimate goal.

“This is the path to putting it online,” he said. “First we have to get the system [running] and make sure it works. Then I see no reason it can’t be put up online.”

Lobbying and ethics law expert Kenneth Gross of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom said that simply allowing Members to file their travel reports online is not by itself an advancement to the public record, though getting them online will be.

“Those [travel] reports are interesting reports and have become more interesting since all this Travelgate stuff has erupted, and I think [putting them online] will have a significant effect,” he said.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who along with Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) has proposed legislation that would overhaul federal lobbying laws, called Ney’s move “one element” of what lawmakers need to do to reform lobbying and Congressional ethics.

“It’s clearly a piece, so that’s good,” Emanuel said.

But the change, he said, doesn’t tackle other issues, such as the revolving door between Congress and K Street and what Emanuel called the intimate relationship between lobbyists and Members.

“We have a whole comprehensive problem,” he added.

As far as the convenience of online filing, Emanuel said that’s a “good benefit, but that’s not the goal.”

The Secretary of the Senate still accepts lobbying disclosure reports either by mail or electronically, and it administers the Lobbying Disclosure Act separately from the House.

Not all lobbyists are excited about the switch on the House side.

Jim Christian Jr., the partner at Patton Boggs who signs and reviews all 300-plus disclosure forms the firm prepares every six months, said the House’s online system is not set up to easily accommodate firms with big numbers of forms.

“They set up a system that’s cumbersome,” Christian said. “We would love to file it electronically, but the way their system is set up, it would make it hard for us to manage the process. If they don’t change the system to accommodate people like us who are large-volume filers, it’s going to be a nightmare.”

Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said his group supports the Congressional move toward electronic filings. But, he added, lobbyists would prefer to file their identical House and Senate disclosure reports at the same time, with one click, as opposed to filing online separately for each chamber.

Otherwise, “we would have to fill them out twice if we did them online,” Miller said. “Why not make it easy on everybody?”

Ney said he was not aware of that issue but is willing to explore it further.

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