Sunshine Week: An unknown congressional ruling can make hearings more transparent

Congressional hearings are an important part of the lawmaking process. Experts from outside the government sit before the committees and help them consider issues of national concern.

But money shapes thoughts in Washington. In 1997, the House Republican outlet The “Truth in Testimony” rule that requires congressional witnesses to disclose US government funding that they or their group have received in connection with the subject matter of the hearing. The idea was, well, transparency.

New York times open In 2014, foreign government funding influenced the research and policy recommendations of prominent Washington think tanks, whose experts are regularly called upon to testify before Congress. in response, a bipartisan group strengthened the truth-in-certification rule to include foreign funding for the organization, in dollar amounts over the past three years. More recently, the form also includes a section, depending on the committee, to indicate whether the expert is entrusted to “any organization or entity having an interest in the subject matter of the hearing” or is registered as A foreign government agent.

But experts constantly evade Roh The rule of truth in testimony. Democratic and Republican staffers have complained to me that the think tank’s experts make a mockery of it, often by introducing them as “individual” to avoid mentioning their organization’s funding.

Take, for example, last week’s hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “Expanding the Abraham AccordsNormalization deals between Israel and Arab countries sponsored by the Trump administration. If an expert’s organization had received donations from, say, the United Arab Emirates, an oil-repressive country powerful in the agreements, that would have been related to the topic of the hearing.

But one of the experts who appeared there did not disclose the Emirati funding for their organization.

Daniel Shapiro, a former ambassador to Israel who runs an initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank that focuses on Israel’s normalization of Arab states, said in his application that he was speaking as an individual and not reported Funding of the United Arab Emirates for the think tank. He provided a link to a public list of donors to the Atlantic Council, but House staff and ethics experts say that’s an inadequate answer and clearly not what the question is asking. “As fact noted on the sample testimony, Ambassador Shapiro was speaking for himself because the Atlantic Council does not adopt or endorse institutional positions on certain matters,” Richard Davidson of the Atlantic Council wrote in an email.

In a statement, the representative of the House Committee said, “Witnesses are responsible for the content and accuracy of the truth in their responses to testimonies.”

Of the two other experts who testified, one recently submitted an amendment to its format to include funding from the UAE and several other sources, for example. mentioned By Ellie Clifton of Statecraft in charge, Others work for a think tank that focuses on the Middle East and says it takes no foreign funding.

United Arab Emirates Undisclosed Supporting the Atlantic Council, said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, “creates a conflict of interest because the UAE has an absolute interest in the subject matter of the hearing.” She told me, “These figures perfectly illustrate the problems with the truth rule in testimony: it is way too narrow, fails to detect conflicts of interest of the witness, and gives a false impression of transparency.”

This was listening far from the first. An inappropriate rule invites an undisclosed conflict of interest.

The truth in testimony and how to avoid it

On the Truth in Testimony form, which is uploaded to the House’s online document repository, experts can check a box for whether they represent themselves or their organization.

This is what Daniel Schumann, director of policy at Demand Progress, calls a choose-your-own-adventure problem that leads to incomplete and misleading answers. “Anyone who cares about this knows that people often present themselves as individuals as a way to avoid having to disclose conflicts of interest that they may encounter,” Schuman told me.

He’s leading experts to say, as he puts it, “I’m Daniel Schumann. I was paid by Demand Progress Education Fund, Demand Progress Action. But I’m testifying on my behalf. And that’s bullshit. You can’t separate that stuff.”

The next issue is the lack of enforcement mechanisms.

“It’s not really clear who’s in charge of policing this or what the consequences will be,” one Democratic congressman told me, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to speak with the media. “If you were a Hill employee, who would you bring this up with?”

I heard varied answers: Parliamentarian; Member of parliament. rules committee; perhaps even an Ethics Committee, though that tends to be members, not non-governmental officials; And, of course, chairmen of the committees in which people testify—but there is little incentive for employees to speak up. “Keep in mind that this rarely comes from the majority calling these witnesses,” says Donald Sherman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Ultimately, this ends up being within the committee’s remit for implementation.”

All of this is compounded by the tight schedule in which congressional hearings tend to occur, being planned over the course of a week or less. No one wants to embarrass witnesses, and the gentlemen’s agreement among members of Congress is that it is uncommon for witnesses of another party to be called, lest there be a summons in kind of one witness. Matt Doss, former advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, named It is “the corruption everyone in Washington agrees to pretend is not corruption.”

When it works, the truth-in-testimony rule helps give a better picture of not only the individual expert’s potential conflicts of interest, but how Washington operates.

The watch welcomed this because it gave insight into the funding of black money organizations – that is, think tanks that do not publish their donors or foreign funding online.

that it Also useful in that it shows important elements of an individual’s resume that are sometimes omitted. In early March, Trump’s former deputy national security advisor Matt Pottinger testified before the House Select Committee on China, and noted in its forms He is a fiduciary agent at the strategic advisory firm Garnaut Global. It was a handy breadcrumb because the company’s website Essentially empty It does not contain any mention of Pottinger. The role is not listed on his resume anywhere, but from other publicly available information it is clear that it is Garnaut Global related to the hearing. The firm advises “selected global asset managers, technology firms, and allied government agencies… to navigate the opaque world of Chinese elite politics and anticipate China’s actions and impact on the investment landscape,” according to its founder. the biography in another place.

Meanwhile, Joe Votel, a retired general and fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, did not note in his initial submission to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the think tank receives foreign funding. that it an average On the morning of the hearing—to include institute grants from the US government and funding from Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—he demonstrates the importance of truth-in-testimony models in giving a more complete picture of the experts’ recommendations. “MEI scholars maintain complete intellectual independence, and their work, including testimony, represents their own views,” says Rachel Dooley of the think tank.

For its part, the Atlantic Council received Over a million dollars a year From the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. The program Shapiro runs, the N7 initiative that focuses on Israel and the Arab countries, is funded by separate private donors. he male In his image he was representing himself, though the Atlantic Council to publish Online testimony.

“Our practice of publishing transcripts of our experts’ testimonies before Congress on issues relevant to the Council’s work in no way indicates endorsement of their positions,” Davidson of the Atlantic Council emailed. “The funding we receive from the UAE is for general support and is not earmarked to fund our N7 initiative or our work on the Abraham Accords.”

But Clark says this individual-organizational distinction goes beyond the spirit of al-Qaeda. She told me, “The scandal here is what al-Qaeda allows.” The scholarship could have been about grasshoppers in the United Arab Emirates. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Atlantic Council has significant funding from a foreign government that is actually a party to the Abraham Accords, but you wouldn’t know that from this disclosure form. … What matters is that the source has an interest in this, in the matter of the hearing.”

By contrast, the head of the German Marshall Fund Research Foundation testified last year and complete It documented all US and foreign government funding for the organization. It was refreshing to see.

What reforms could lead to more transparency?

The fact that the House has an online repository — so that when committee leaders change parties, documents don’t get messed up — is an improvement that shows more transparency is possible. the site has been expanded in January 2013 to include these types of forms. The next step would be to make it more searchable, readable, and accessible.

While committees require disclosure of all fiduciary roles of an expert, a more ambitious idea is legislation to require clients to be included in public financial disclosure processes.

One idea of ​​how to enhance truth in testimony is to create police mechanisms for reviewing and evaluating forms. The Government Accountability Office, for example, conducts random audits of lobbyist registrations under the Lobbyist Disclosure Act, which ensures compliance. “You can have a random audit process that provides some form of quality assurance,” Schumann told me.

Something more straightforward, as suggested by the Democratic congressional staffer I spoke with, is to spell out frequently asked questions that specify what should or should not be disclosed on forms. Last year, Rep. Jim Banks (R-in) Submit a bill For more reinforce – strengthen The rule by clarifying a few details that are often overlooked, but did not go far under the shadow of the new house.

“I don’t want my facts influenced by Saudi Arabia, my facts influenced by Russia or my facts influenced by China,” one Republican congressman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me. “If we fix this in Congress, and really get testimony that isn’t affected by these agendas, we’ll get better laws, we’ll get better policy, we’ll get better hearings.”

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