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Ethics Cuts Gay Spouse Disclosure Proposal

The House Ethics Committee has overhauled its instruction manual for completing annual Congressional financial disclosure forms, sidestepping a proposed provision that would have for the first time requested the spousal information of same-sex couples.

The Ethics Committee had last year released a draft of proposed disclosure rules that included many substantive changes, including a first-time requirement that gay married couples be considered spouses for the purposes of reporting financial information on the annual forms.

That draft was removed from the websites of the Ethics Committee and the Office of the Clerk of the House after inquiries made by Roll Call. It was later replaced with instructions that largely reverted back to the version released the year before, despite the fact that the disclosure form itself had been revised.

The new instruction manual that Members of Congress and senior staffers will use to complete the annual financial disclosure forms — which are due May 15 — has many of the other changes from the short-lived draft, including expanded sections on reporting capital gains and investments in self-directed retirement accounts, real estate investment trusts, government securities and hedge funds.

Under the heading “Same-Sex Marriages,” the draft version stated that “In 2009, there were a total of four states which issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Vermont. (New Hampshire and the District of Columbia began issuing such licenses effective in 2010). If you and your spouse were issued a marriage license by any of these states and were subsequently legally married in that state, you must disclose all required spousal information on your Financial Disclosure Statement.” The new instruction manual deleted this section entirely.

Members of Congress and certain staffers are required by federal law to report income, investments and liabilities. The source of spousal earned income — though not the amount — is requested on the annual disclosure form, and assets owned by the spouse must also be disclosed.

Currently, Members and staffers in same-sex marriages do not have to provide information relating to the financial interests of spouses, though they can choose to note whether assets and sources of income are jointly held with a spouse or dependent.

Gay marriage advocates and opponents both criticized the idea of requiring same-sex spousal information, but for different reasons.

“It would be unfair to subject same-sex couples to some of the obligations of marriage without the benefits that would come with it,” said Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.

To opponents, the inclusion of such a provision would contradict federal law, though the Justice Department has said it will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. DOMA states the federal government will only recognize a marriage between one man and one woman.

“Just because the Obama administration decided not to follow the Constitution in defiance of the law doesn’t mean the law doesn’t still apply,” said Tom McClusky, vice president at the Family Research Council Action.

Neither objected to the idea of a disclosure requirement that would encompass unmarried opposite-sex couples.

“If somebody is living with someone, if there are questions of impropriety, there should be some reporting requirement,” McClusky said.

The newly revised 30-page instruction manual attempts to clarify and simplify a process that has in the past been riddled with errors. It goes into greater detail about the information required for specific investments, including reporting income from real estate investment trusts and hedge funds. There is now an explanation of a capital gains box that was added to the disclosure form last year.

It also includes a new section on spousal separation, which exempts Members and staffers from disclosing the finances of spouses if they are separated with the intent of dissolving the marriage.

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