House urges upgrade

The inspector general of the House of Representatives last month released a report that concludes that upgrading computer systems that track information on lobbying activity and congressional members' financial holdings would help eliminate security risks and human error, but advocacy groups said the plan does not make the information easily available to the public.

The House uses the computers to maintain the financial disclosure data that representatives and candidates are required by law to provide, including information such as the amount of money earned from speaking fees, earned income and stock ownership. The systems also maintain lobbyists' semiannual reports describing their lobbying activities. The public can access the information via computer terminals at the Legislative Resource Center, based in one of the House office buildings.

The staff running the systems must still manually process the information, which is filed on paper disclosure forms. The forms then are electronically scanned into the systems. Modernizing the existing systems would allow for electronic submissions, speeding up processing and eliminating security risks and human error, according to the report.

The inspector general's report suggests that the House should allow candidates and lobbyists to use the Internet to file their reports. But the report makes only slight mention of the Internet as a tool for disseminating the information to the public, stating only that the House may have a need to "allow for potential public access via the Internet."

"It's just totally maddening that they wouldn't put this on the Internet, given that it's already computerized," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a group affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

The terminals in the Legislative Resource Center are "pretty easy [to use], except that you have to be in Washington to use [them]," Ruskin said.

In a memo to outgoing House Inspector General John Lainhart, House Clerk Jeff Trandahl said he agreed that the current system should be replaced but expressed uncertainty on letting representatives, candidates and lobbyists file information electronically.

"The [Office of the Clerk] is hesitant to survey...filers to gauge acceptance and usage without confidence that cost-effective electronic filing could be implemented," Trandahl said. "Such a survey would not be conducted without first determining the cost-effectiveness, appropriateness, and, if necessary, nonrepudiation issues involved in electronic filing. As well, approval from [the Committee on House Administration] would be required prior to conducting such a survey."

Committee staff members and Office of the Clerk officials familiar with the systems could not be reached for comment.

Christian Hendricks, director of information systems audits at the House IG's office, said examining the World Wide Web's role in disseminating the information was not part of the scope of the audit, outlined with help from House Administration Committee officials and officials at the House Clerk's office. Hendricks said the "charge" of the IG's office was to examine the current process and propose ways to make it better.

Ruskin said management of the information is a political matter, and representatives may not want to make the information easily accessible. "[The reports] can be the source of tremendous embarrassment," he said. "But that's what they're for - so people can read about possible conflicts of interest."

The report offers four proposals that would eliminate some of the manual processes in the systems. One alternative calls for a new document imaging system and a workflow system. A second alternative suggests the same approach but allows filers to submit forms electronically - possibly over the Internet - and would add basic encryption to enhance security of the information.

A third alternative puts in place a new imaging system, a workflow system, an electronic filing capability and high-end public-key infrastructure security provided by a third party. The final alternative is similar, but calls for House officials, rather than an outside organization, to manage PKI security.

Each of the alternatives would cost more than it would cost to run the existing system over the next five years. For example, it costs almost $3 million to operate the system now, but the IG estimates the fourth alternative would cost $6 million. According to the report, "each alternative is viable, and the cost differentiation across the alternatives are minor in comparison to improved efficiencies and services."

The report does not advocate any of the alternatives and offers a tepid approach to the use of the Internet for filing the reports. "Although Internet technologies have gained wide acceptance within the U.S., it is unclear to what extent [financial disclosure] and [lobbying disclosure] filers would file using electronic methods. The [Office of the Clerk] should, at a minimum, survey...filers to gauge acceptance and usage prior to investing in electronic filing technologies."

The consulting group Public Disclosure Inc. makes some of the House-maintained information available on its Web site, at www.publicdisclosure.org.

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