What are some reported difficulties with evaluating Congressional representatives' financial disclosure reports?


General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
Alan J. Ziobrowski, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Real Estate at Georgia State University, wrote in his July 13, 2009 written testimony (31.6 KB) for the US House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation hearing on "Preventing Unfair Trading by Government Officials":

"If 'The objectives of financial disclosure are to inform the public about the financial interests of government officials in order to increase public confidence in the integrity of government and to deter potential conflicts of interest' as stated in the House Ethics Manual, then financial disclosure, as it is currently practiced, is a dismal failure. From my personal experience, I found that access to the FDRs [financial disclosure reports], in particular the Senate FDRs, is difficult unless you happen to live in Washington. It is intimidating since records are kept of everyone who reviews them. And it can be expensive. Some FDRs are invariably missing and when you find them they are often difficult to read, incomplete or just wrong (untrustworthy). But all these shortcomings aside, the most significant problem is that the system fails to link financial disclosure to legislative behavior. I would submit that an FDR without an accompanying voting record is useless...

At best, financial disclosure is harmless aside from a false sense of trust it may provide."


July 13, 2009 - Alan J. Ziobrowski, PhD 

Max Holland, Editor of the online newsletter Washington Decoded, in the Jan. 1, 2006 Washington Spectator article "An Ethics Quagmire: Senators Beat the Stock Market--and Get Rich--with Insider Information," wrote:

"Since 1978, senators have been required to disclose all their personal financial holdings (and those of their spouses and dependents) in an annual Financial Disclosure Report (FDR). This yearly exercise is considered the most effective mechanism for deterring gross conflicts of interest or egregious self-enrichment.

The supposed transparency of the FDRs, however, is not all that it is cracked up to be. And this is the other troubling aspect exposed by the new [2004 Georgia State University] study. The trading data available in the FDRs presented a host of problems. While some senators simply attached the monthly financial statements from their brokerage firms to the FDR, others provided only handwritten notations or abbreviations that the professors found impossible to decipher.

More significantly, senators are only required to report their gains within eleven broad bands ($1,001 to $15,000, $15,001 to $50,000, and so forth), and so the exact amount of their profits cannot be measured...

Indeed, the 'banding problem,' as it's known to money-in-politics cognoscenti, is a serious defect in the FDRs because it obscures almost as much as it reveals. One member of Congress, for instance, listed assets, in bands, that totaled somewhere between $813,000 and $1.7 million in 1996. This same member, nine years later, listed assets totaling somewhere between $2.4 million and $8.1 million. The gap between those numbers suggests two very different portraits: a member who is either simply a prudent investor, or someone who rivals Warren Buffett, albeit by exploiting, in all likelihood, the boundless perks available to elective officeholders."


Jan. 1, 2006 - Max Holland 

Ellen S. Miller, Co-founder and Executive Director of Sunlight Foundation, in her May 4, 2007 Sunlight Foundation blog post "Make Congress File Personal Financial Forms Electronically," wrote:

"Congress, which has required electronic filing of reports by lobbyists, campaign committees and 527 organizations, has failed to make personal financial disclosure reports available on the Internet-even in PDF format. Instead, the reports and the information contained in them are buried in the basement office of the House Clerk...

...[B]ecause these reports are currently disclosed within the boundaries of the Capitol Hill, constituents from Maine to California, from Alaska to Florida, must either head to Washington themselves to get the necessary information or rely on the efforts of privately funded groups like the Center for Responsive Politics to make the information truly public.

In the Internet age, members of Congress should abide by and honor the purpose of filing a financial disclosure, and make the information available to all their constituents-in a searchable, sortable, publicly accessible database."


May 4, 2007 - Ellen S. Miller 

Gail Russell Chaddock, Staff Writer for the Christian Science Monitor, in the Mar. 9, 2004 article "In Stock Market, US Senators Beat Averages," wrote:

"...[A]lthough the Senate's financial disclosure rules have been upgraded over the years, records are difficult for researchers to access...

The documents are available to view in the public documents room of the Hart Senate Office Building or can be ordered at a cost of 20 cents a page. In addition, individuals who access these files find that their name, professional affiliation, and date of access become part of the permanent record of the file - so lawmakers can see who's interested in them...

Moreover, by law, the disclosures are removed from the public record after seven years...

The data are incomplete: Dollar amounts are reported only in broad ranges: increments such as $50,00-100,000, or 'over $50 million.'"


Mar. 9, 2004 - Gail Russell Chaddock 

Stephen M. Bainbridge, MS, JD, William D. Warren Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, in the online article "Insiders on the Hill" published Mar. 30, 2006 on TCSDaily.com, wrote:

"Congressmen and their staffs currently have to report their trading activities only once a year...In contrast, when Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley law in 2002, they gave corporate insiders only two days in which to report their stock transactions. Is there any good reason Congress shouldn't have to do likewise?"

Mar. 30, 2006 - Stephen M. Bainbridge, MS, JD