U.S. House Clears Bill Obscuring Federal Workers’ Assets

Detailed financial disclosures from senior federal employees and congressional aides wouldn’t be posted in searchable online databases under legislation sent today to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The bill, S. 716, was hurriedly introduced and passed in the Senate without a roll-call vote yesterday to get ahead of an April 15 deadline for financial transaction reports to be posted online. The bill passed the House today the same way.

Federal employee groups had lobbied for the change, saying that easy access to personal financial information could lead to harassment or make the workers more vulnerable to identity theft. Critics faulted the measure for undermining a law, called the Stock Act, aimed at preventing profits from trading securities based on inside information.

The bill is an “epic failure” by lawmakers that “sets an extraordinarily dangerous precedent suggesting that any risks stem not from information being public but from public information being online,” wrote Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant for the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency.

Intrusive Disclosures

The bill would modify requirements to deal with concerns raised in a March 28 report by the National Academy of Public Administration, which found that detailed online disclosures would pose a security risk to government employees and make them more vulnerable to identity theft.

The Office of Government Ethics, the agency that oversees the federal financial disclosure system, made a similar recommendation in an April 5 letter to congressional leaders.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the disclosures were intrusive and could compromise security. “You really don’t want to put people in the position where you’ll harm them for no good reason,” Bonosaro, whose organization represents career federal executives, said by telephone.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said lawmakers should have delayed implementation of the rules, rather than striking whole categories of those affected. “There is a valid public interest in being assured that staff and federal employees in a position to know insider information are not profiting from that information,” he said.

Followed Recommendations

“We followed exactly what the NAPA report recommended and OGE told us,” Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said by e-mail.

The bill flew through Congress in less than two days and with little disclosure. Reid introduced it Thursday and copies of the text weren’t publicly available until after the Senate had agreed to pass it by unanimous consent, with no roll-call vote. The House cleared it today with a similar procedure.

“It is possible that the Senate’s overreaction could have been avoided if anyone had the chance to read the bill,” said the Sunlight Foundation’s Rosenberg. The group had advocated narrower exemptions to existing disclosure laws.

“It’s rather a curious way to legislate,” Bonosaro said, “but we’ll take it.”

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