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Congress quietly repeals plan for Internet financial disclosures

Cherry trees are in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Cherry trees are in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By David Lawder and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress on Friday voted to repeal a plan to require Internet posting of a vast database of financial disclosures from congressional staff and many executive branch employees required by a new ethics-in-government law.

Neither chamber debated the measure, which amends the STOCK Act, passed with great fanfare last year to prevent lawmakers, their staffs and other government officials from using insider knowledge about policymaking to profit from stock trades and other investments. The disclosures of potentially sensitive financial information were due to begin on Monday.

Under the bill passed by the Senate on Thursday and by the House of Representatives on Friday - without a hearing or a recorded vote in either case - officials still must file disclosures of financial transactions, but they no longer have to file online in a way that is easily accessible to the public.

Congress, criticized for its slow pace and partisanship on most issues, managed to overcome both. No Republican or Democrat objected to the unanimous passage, which consumed about 10 seconds worth of time in the Senate and 14 seconds in the House, according to official records.

The repeal came in response to fears expressed that cyber criminals, either individuals or agents of some foreign countries, could have gained access to the financial data that was to have been posted online.

Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said the congressional action was based on findings of a study by the nonpartisan National Academy of Public Administration. "This was their recommendation and the House and Senate agreed it was the best course of action," he said.

The STOCK Act (an acronym for Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) became law a year ago and was intended to deter insider trading by members of Congress who could use information about pending legislation for financial gain. The measure was expanded to include the executive branch of government.

Last August, Congress exempted thousands of top military officers and civilian government officials from having to post their financial assets such as bank accounts, stock and mutual fund holdings and investment properties.

Lisa Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit public interest group, said the repeal "undermines the intent" of the law to ensure that government insiders are not profiting from non-public information.

"Are we going to return to the days when the public can use the Internet to research everything except what their government is doing?" Rosenberg said.

She noted that the legislation makes Internet filing optional for elected officials and individuals subject to Senate confirmation while eliminating the online requirement entirely for employees, as well as a requirement in the original law making the filings "searchable."

(Reporting by David Lawder and Richard Cowan; Editing by Fred Barbash and Will Dunham)

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