In April, Congress passed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act to prevent members of Congress from financially benefiting from knowledge gained through carrying out their official duties. While the STOCK Act was appropriately intended to increase the financial transparency of Congress, a provision quietly inserted into the bill’s final version will have unacceptable, unintended consequences for senior civil servants. That provision, Section 11, was temporarily blocked from taking effect by a federal judge last week, but it should be permanently repealed.
Today, senior civil servants already file annual financial disclosure forms, which are reviewed by agency ethics personnel and are available to the public upon request. However, the information is disclosed only to individuals who register and identify themselves, and the data are only available in small increments in a deliberate process that allows for review.
Section 11’s requirement, mandating that agencies post online the financial disclosure forms of more than 28,000 senior-level federal employees, may seem benign on its face.
However, it would make these same financial disclosure forms publicly available in a centralized, searchable database to anyone — friend or foe — with Internet access. A letter recently penned by 14 high-level former senior executives to Congress expresses concerns about how this provision could result in national security threats and potential threats to personal safety, as well as to the financial security of senior executives and their families.
The provision does carry great risk to certain senior federal employees, particularly those in national security positions overseas.
For example, under the proposed online system our enemies around the world might be able to search thousands of records with a single keystroke — anonymously exploiting an easily accessible database to search for subtle differences in financial disclosures.
If analyzed closely, these differences might betray the identity of members of the intelligence community, while simultaneously providing information to our enemies as to which employees might be struggling financially — a known criteria used by foreign intelligence services to target individuals for espionage.
This information could also give foreign criminal elements information on the financial standing of members of our civilian workforce, making some of them attractive targets for robbery, extortion, identity theft and kidnapping.
With minimal further analysis, this same data could also be used to identify and target their children, family members and loved ones at home and abroad.
According to the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit professional association that represents many Senior Executive Service employees, some civil servants, as a result, have either chosen to forgo joining the SES, have fallen back to less senior positions, or have retired.
At a time when our government faces increasing challenges with decreasing resources, we should not place additional burdens on our most talented public servants, who are already facing pay freezes, reduced bonuses and increased workloads.
Congress, faced with growing opposition to Section 11’s online posting requirement, delayed the implementation of the provision from Aug. 31 to Sept. 30. Delaying the requirement, however, only postpones the potential national security and safety threats facing our senior federal employees.
Instead, Congress should outright repeal Section 11, which unfairly punishes senior executives and represents an unprecedented violation of their privacy. There is no documented evidence to suggest that the existing financial disclosure review process for senior executives is ineffective.
The bill should stick to its important purpose of bringing more transparency and accountability to elected members of Congress.
Rep. James Moran is a Democrat representing Virginia’s 8th District.