July 14, 1998

July 14, 1998 | Backgrounder on Political Thought

Truth in Testimony: Has Congress Made the Grade?

On January 7, 1997, the first day of the 105th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Truth in Testimony rule, which requires witnesses appearing before House committees to disclose federal grants and contracts received during the present and previous two fiscal years. Early results from implementation of Truth in Testimony demonstrate relatively high overall compliance: Approximately 77 percent of witnesses covered by the new rule filed disclosure statements, and only 9 percent of the witnesses who failed to comply actually received federal grant funds in FY 1996. Despite these positive results, however, over $140 million in FY 1995 and FY 1996 federal grant funds awarded to witnesses went unreported.

A few minor reforms, including clarification of the rule and more uniform implementation, could yield more thorough results. Additionally, compilation of witness disclosure data in committee reports, which could be made available over the Internet, would allow the public greater access to this information.

TRUTH IN TESTIMONY ANALYSIS

Methodology

The following scorecard was created using a sample that includes relevant witnesses2 testifying between January and May 1997 before nearly half of the standing committees (9 of 20) and nearly one-third of the standing subcommittees (28 of 86) of the House of Representatives. Witness disclosure (or lack thereof) was measured against federal grants distributed in FY 1995 and FY 1996, as reported in the Federal Assistance Award Data System (FAADS) database.3 Committee grades are not based solely on the percentage of witnesses complying; they also take into account the procedures utilized by each committee and the results of non-compliance by individual witnesses.

The Scorecard

Overall Score: C+

Of the 971 witnesses testifying before the surveyed House committees, 743 (77 percent) filed disclosure statements pursuant to the Truth in Testimony rule. Of these 743 witnesses, 296 (30 percent of the total of 971) revealed federal funding. However, the evidence indicates that 16 witnesses failed to reveal receipt of federal funds in their statements and that 21 other witnesses received federal funds yet violated the Truth in Testimony rule by failing to make any disclosure.

These 37 witnesses representing 29 organizations account for $140,156,313 in unreported FY 1995 and FY 1996 federal funds.4 By far the largest portion of this money is traceable to witnesses appearing before the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees. All told, 336 witnesses, or 35 percent of those testifying before the sampled House committees, received federal funds.

Grades by Committee

A+   Banking and Financial Services

The Committee on Banking and Financial Services, along with its Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit and Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, has set the standard for other committees to follow, reporting disclosure by all 82 witnesses. This success is the result of the committee's systematic application of the Truth in Testimony rule. Before potential witnesses testify before the Banking Committee or its subcommittees, they are informed, in writing, of the Truth in Testimony rule and are provided a standardized form to assist them in their disclosure preparation.

B      Agriculture

The Agriculture Committee and its subcommittees received disclosure statements from 83 percent of the 82 witnesses testifying. Despite this generally good compliance record, however, the few witnesses who did not comply (or who did not properly disclose) received enough funds to make Agriculture second only to Appropriations in undisclosed federal funds. Of the 14 witnesses who did not disclose, two received federal funding:

Witness Federal Funds Received
United Brotherhood of Carpenters $33,611
American Soybean Association $12,245,000

In addition, Price Waterhouse claimed in its disclosure statement that it had received no federal funds, yet it received $5,449,932 in FY 1995 and FY 1996.

B-     Appropriations--Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education

Of the 163 witness testifying before the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, 92 percent provided the required information. Five witnesses, however, claimed they had no money to disclose even though the evidence indicated they had received a total of $41.6 million. Some witnesses cited their understanding that they were bound to report only relevant funding; others failed to disclose large sums received by company subdivisions. Clarification of the Truth in Testimony rule by the Rules Committee could help eliminate such problems.

C+     Appropriations--Subcommittee on Interior

The Subcommittee on Interior achieved a very respectable 88 percent disclosure among its 104 witnesses. However, five recipients of federal funds failed to file disclosure statements:

Witness Federal Funds Received
The Wildlife Society $25,000
Passaic River Coalition $24,000
Allison Engine Co. $7,613,142
National Assoc. for State Cmty. Services Prog. $718,273
Westinghouse $60,904,144

In addition, one witness reported receiving no federal funding even though a subdivision had received federal support:

Witness Federal Funds Received
American Dental Association 5 $3,592,256

Together, these six organizations received over $70 million in federal grants. The Interior Subcommittee is a case study of why careful compliance with Truth in Testimony is necessary. Any single witness can represent a company receiving millions of dollars from congressionally appropriated federal programs.

C      Veterans' Affairs

The Veterans' Affairs Committee and its subcommittees received disclosure statements from 70 percent of 53 witnesses. Of particular note is the American Legion, which appeared before the committee and its subcommittees seven times: once disclosing funds because of relevance, five times disclosing receipt of no federal funds, and once failing to disclose. More uniform application of the Truth in Testimony rule could help avoid this kind of inconsistency.

D      Resources

With 121 of 128 witnesses (95 percent) providing disclosure statements, the Resources Committee and its subcommittees might seem to be models of how to apply Truth in Testimony. But a thorough analysis of the results shows that the Resources Committee actually is an example of how not to apply the rule.

The Resources Committee and its subcommittees assert that the only funds that must be disclosed under Truth in Testimony are those that are relevant to the specific issue of a hearing. But testimony on federal programs from witnesses who benefit from those programs is exactly the sort of self-serving exercise that Truth in Testimony is intended to expose; the committee's narrow reading of the rule's application therefore lessens the rule's impact. Under this watered-down interpretation, witnesses conceivably could receive their entire operating budgets from the federal government while, on grounds of a claimed lack of relevancy, avoiding any disclosure of federal funding. By allowing witnesses to determine whether their funding is relevant to their testimony, the committee undermines the rule and often leaves the witnesses in a state of confusion. The chaos created by the committee's interpretation is most apparent in the cases of the Sierra Club and Safari Club. Representatives of both organizations issued conflicting claims--one witness declaring that his organization had received federal funds and another witness from the same organization declaring that it had not--when testifying before the same subcommittee. Witnesses should be required to disclose all federal funds received, and the relevant committees and the public should determine for themselves whether the information disclosed is relevant.

F      Appropriations--Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies

The Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and other Independent Agencies failed to receive disclosure statements from 27 witnesses, or 43 percent of the 63 witnesses who testified. Nearly a third of those witnesses who failed to file the required information benefited from a cumulative total of $7,080,490 in FY 1995 and FY 1996. 6

F      Education and the Workforce

The Committee on Education and the Workforce and its subcommittees received disclosure statements from only 51 percent of 189 witnesses. A total of 92 witnesses did not file statements. Three of these non-reporting witnesses shared a total of $4,329,225 in federal funds in FY 1995 and FY 1996. (It should be noted that a few months after the Truth and Testimony rule was applied, toward the end of our survey sample, the committee implemented a more rigorous policy, including a standardized form for all witnesses, thereby contributing to considerably better results.)

I      Budget

The Budget Committee earns an incomplete for its policy on releasing Truth in Testimony compliance information. The committee would not release files, claiming that all witnesses testifying before it were concerned citizens who had no funds to disclose. Internet research, however, revealed that four institutions testified. One of these groups, the Brookings Institution, received $447,451 in federal funds in FY 1995 and FY 1996. The Budget Committee's minimum-disclosure policy points to the need for greater public access to these records. One feasible remedy would be to make Truth in Testimony compliance part of committee reports, which could be made available over the Internet.

I      Ways and Means

The Committee on Ways and Means likewise would not grant access to Truth in Testimony records, and therefore receives an incomplete.

WHEN TRUTH IN TESTIMONY IS NOT ENFORCED

A few examples demonstrate the need for effective enforcement of the Truth in Testimony rule.

NAHB Research Center, Inc., testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies, requesting an increase in HUD research funding. NAHB, which failed to provide Truth in Testimony disclosure, received $1,248,609 in HUD research grants in FY 1995 and FY 1996. Thus, it appeared to be supporting increased funding for a program from which it receives support. This is the sort of obvious self-interest that Truth in Testimony is intended to expose.

Allison Engine Company testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, requesting that Congress continue to fund the Advanced Turbine Systems (ATS) Program at the level of $35 million for FY 1998 and recommending the appropriation of funds for fuel cell gas turbine combined systems. Allison received a $1,963,142 federal grant for "advanced materials for small turbine engines" in FY 1995 and $5,650,000 in cooperative agreement grants for industrial turbine system development in FY 1996. Although the witness did refer to Allison's Advanced Turbine Systems Program--thereby implying the possible receipt of cooperative grants--he did not explicitly disclose the existence and amount of government cooperative grants received by Allison Engine as required by the Truth in Testimony rule.

Westinghouse Electric Corporation also appeared before the Subcommittee on Interior, requesting that Congress increase funding for the Advanced Turbine Systems Program from the Clinton Administration's recommended level of $31,379,000 to Westinghouse's recommended level of $46,400,000. It also requested that funding for Tubular Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) be increased from $12,288,000 to $16,000,000. Westinghouse received $39,862,000 in federal cooperative grants in FY 1995 and FY 1996 for ATS and SOFC, and $21,042,144 for other projects. While Westinghouse declared in its testimony that it participated with the Department of Energy in these two programs--thereby implying that it received federal grants--the witness did not explicitly disclose the existence and amount of federal cooperative grants received by Westinghouse as required by the Truth in Testimony rule.

The Association of State Dam Officials, Inc., testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies in favor of a $2.5 million increase over President Clinton's proposed funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for the National Dam Safety Program. The Association, which did not file a disclosure statement, received $480,000 in FY 1995 and FY 1996 from FEMA for dam inventory and dam safety public awareness. The Association of State Dam Officials thus appears to be another example of an agency seeking more money for a federal program upon which it relies for support.

The Association of American Medical Colleges testified before the Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies, arguing against FY 1998 budget cuts proposed by President Clinton for the Department of Veterans Affairs medical research budget. The Association did not provide Truth in Testimony disclosure, yet received $269,110 in FY 1996 from Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Services Research and Development Grants and represents 75 VA medical centers that would be affected by the proposed budget cuts.

The Aids Healthcare Foundation also testified before the Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies, seeking $1.5 million for an AIDS patient health-care demonstration project. The Aids Healthcare Foundation did not file Truth in Testimony disclosure, yet received HHS grants for AIDS patient care totaling $1,643,224 in FY 1995 and FY 1996. Even though the Foundation's testimony--a request for funds for its own program--eliminates any question about whether it would benefit from the funding requested, Truth in Testimony disclosure would have given Members of Congress and the public valuable information about how much federal money it already has received.

The American Soybean Association (ASA) testified before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Risk Management and Specialty Crops on the need for greater risk management education. ASA specified that it would like to participate as part of a public-private-sector task force established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement the program. The advice to increase education carries with it the unstated corollary that more federal funds should be spent on this program. To that end, in a press release dated April 9, 1997, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced a multi-year $5 million initiative for private-public risk management outreach and education. On February 10, 1998, the USDA and other related agencies placed a notice in the Federal Register announcing $3 million in grants for risk management education. Grant decisions were not complete as of this writing, and the agencies will not reveal who applied for funding; therefore, the public is not privy to whether ASA sought a grant from the very program that it said should be expanded. ASA did not file a disclosure statement, but received $12,245,000 in FY 1995 and FY 1996 from the USDA for other projects.

The Medical Library Association appeared before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, requesting that the National Library of Medicine (NLM)--part of the National Institutes of Health--receive a 9 percent increase in FY 1998 funding, bringing the agency's budget to $164.7 million. The Medical Library Association, which claimed to receive no federal funds, received a total of $18,350 in FY 1995 and FY 1996 from NIH programs coordinated by the NLM.

The American Dental Association did not receive funds (and claimed none in its disclosure), but the American Dental Association Health Foundation, a subdivision of the American Dental Association, received $3,592,256 in FY 1995 and FY 1996 for research from the Department of Health and Human Services. The Association also testified before the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee regarding funding levels in the 1998 budget for HHS-funded dental programs, requesting a $2 million increase for the budget of the Division of Oral Health (an HHS agency) for two projects, one of which was research, and advocating a $212.5 million budget for the National Institute of Dental Research (also an HHS agency).

It should be noted that nothing is necessarily wrong with recipients of federal funds testifying before Congress, even regarding programs which help provide their financial support. Because of their expertise, such witnesses may well be in a position to provide valuable information. However, there is something wrong when witnesses for such organizations do not disclose the receipt of federal funds. The absence of disclosure by these witnesses violates the Truth in Testimony rule and creates at least the appearance that their testimony is designed to promote private rather than public interests.

CONCLUSION

The failing grades of a few committees aside, early application of Truth in Testimony was quite successful. The achievement of several committees--such as the Banking and Financial Services Committee--proves that the rule can be enforced with reasonable effort and minimal hindrance to committee operations. That said, however, a few changes could insure even better application of Truth in Testimony in the future.

First, the disparity between committees in their understanding and application of the rule should prompt the Rules Committee to hold hearings on the subject. The positive results achieved during the early application of Truth in Testimony suggest that there is no need to create a new rule, but hearings could promote clarity and uniformity in its application.

Among the issues that should be clarified is the question of relevancy. For the Truth in Testimony rule to have the greatest effect, committees should require the disclosure of all federal funding. Full disclosure will allow Members of Congress, the press, and the public to determine relevance, rather than leaving this determination to a witness who may or may not be seeking to minimize the appearance of offering self-serving testimony.

The Rules Committee should also consider the question of funds received by subdivisions of organizations. Several organizations disclosed that they received no federal funding, yet the evidence indicates that subdivisions of these same organizations received substantial federal support. The Rules Committee should interpret the rule to encompass federal funding received by closely held subsidiaries.

Second, committees should provide a standard form to witnesses. Standard forms like the one used by the Banking and Financial Services Committee give witnesses needed guidance and contribute to more uniform disclosure.

Third, committees should make compliance data more accessible to the public. The collection of disclosure data for this study required a substantial number of hours. Even though several committees have begun to post their testimony on the World Wide Web, none apparently posts Truth in Testimony disclosure statements. By including Truth in Testimony compliance data in their reports and posting those reports on the Internet, House committees could subject self-serving witnesses to the light of public scrutiny and ensure that the public has access to the facts about how well Truth in Testimony is being implemented.

Robert D. Alt is a former Research Analyst for the Government Reform Project at The Heritage Foundation.


Appendix
Truth in Testimony Disclosure by Witnesses Who Received
Federal Funding in FY 1995 and FY 1996

Failed to File Disclosure

Witness Committee(s) Federal Funds
Aids Healthcare Foundation Appropriations $1,643,224
Allison Engine Co. Appropriations $7,613,142
American Chemical Society 7 Appropriations $1,541,279
American Legion Appropriations/VA $98,982
American Psychiatric Association Appropriations $1,565,238
American Society of Mechanical Engineers Appropriations Agriculture $5,000
American Soybean Association Agriculture $12,245,000
Association of American Medical Colleges Appropriations $418,163
Association of State Dam Safety Officials Appropriations $480,000
Brookings Institution Judiciary/Budget $447,451
Council of Chief State School Officers Education and Workforce $3,880,056
Hudson Institute Education and Workforce $99,941
International Assoc. of Machinists Education and Workforce $349,228
NAHB Research Center Appropriations $1,328,604
National Assoc. for State Cmty. Services Prog. Appropriations $718,273
Passaic River Coalition Appropriations $24,000
Sabolich Prosthetic Appropriations $333,382
United Brotherhood of Carpenters Agriculture $33,611
Westinghouse Appropriations $60,904,144
The Wildlife Society Appropriations $25,000
Total $93,753,718

Filed Disclosure Claiming No Federal Funding

Witness Committee(s) Federal Funds
American Dental Association 8 Appropriations $3,592,256
American Legion Veterans' Affairs $98,982 9
Defenders of Wildlife Resources $33,000
Friends of the Everglades Resources $10,000
Medical Library Association Appropriations $18,350
Price Waterhouse Agriculture $5,449,932
Sierra Club Resources $49,968
U.S. Catholic Conference Appropriations $37,093,389
Vietnam Veterans of America 10 Veterans' Affairs $155,700
Total $46,402,595

Endnotes

1. The author would like to thank Meg Meehan and David Mason for their substantial contributions to this paper. Meg Meehan, a former intern at The Heritage Foundation, collected and compiled the Truth in Testimony disclosure data. David Mason, Senior Fellow in Congressional Affairs at The Heritage Foundation, provided guidance for and criticism of the paper at all stages.

2. Public witnesses are excluded from the Truth in Testimony rule. Both public and private university witnesses were excluded from this analysis because of the difficulty in distinguishing between the interests and motivations of academic witnesses based on the public or private status of their institution.

3. Data for 1997 were unavailable at the time of this printing.

4. Some organizations made multiple appearances, thus explaining the difference between numbers of witness appearances and numbers of organizations.

5. Funding information is for the American Dental Association Health Foundation, a subdivision of the American Dental Association. See "When Truth in Testimony Is Not Enforced," infra, for more details about the Health Foundation.

6. One of the witnesses included in this total claimed in his verbal testimony to have filed a disclosure statement reflecting federal grants received. The disclosure statement did not appear in the committee's report.

7. Witness claimed to have included disclosure statement. No disclosure form appeared in the committee's record.

8. Funds received by American Dental Association Health Foundation, a subdivision of the American Dental Association.

9. Because funds are counted in the "Failed to File" table, American Legion funds are not included in the total of this table.

10. Funds received by Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

About the Author

Robert Alt Visiting Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Related Issues: Political Thought