Grassley seeks greater transparency from Senate committee testimony
WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley introduced legislation last night which would require witnesses who testify before Senate committees to disclose outside affiliations and financial interests in any organizations, including government entities, which are directly related to the topic of the committee proceeding. Grassley’s resolution would amend the Standing Rules of the Senate.
The legislation responds to a controversy that unfolded earlier this year when it was learned that a witness who presented himself as a health care economist and professor, who testified before the Senate Committee on Finance in 2009, was also being paid by the administration to promote President Obama’s health care proposal.
“The more transparency that can be brought to the work of government, the better, and this legislation works to establish transparency and accountability in Senate committee proceedings,” Grassley said. “Reporting requirements don’t need to be burdensome in order for the public to know where witnesses are coming from, and the public deserve to know where witnesses are coming from because they can influence the outcome of legislative activity.”
Grassley said his reform effort is nonpartisan and the disclosure requirement would apply regardless of which political party holds a majority in the Senate.
Grassley serves as Ranking Member of the Committee on Finance.
Below is the text of the full statement Grassley made in introducing the proposal. Click for a January news release and letter of inquiry. Click to read responses to that letter from the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Dr. Jonathan Gruber.
Floor Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley Introduction of the Witness Sunshine Resolution Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Mr. President, so far during the 111th Congress, the Finance Committee, on which I serve as the ranking Republican member, has held over 50 hearings. At those hearings, around 200 witnesses offered their testimony and answered members’ questions. The witnesses who testify at our hearings are considered to be some of the most qualified experts in their field and their participation is critical to the legislative process. Because of their influence on legislation, it is important that Congress knows to what extent the witness’ testimony is objective and if the witness has any significant interest in the outcome of potential legislation.
Three of the hearings held by the Finance Committee this Congress were roundtable discussions on health care reform. These discussions brought 41 witnesses, including industry stakeholders and academic leaders, before the Committee to share their expert knowledge on policy options for health reform.
At one of these roundtables, Dr. Jonathan Gruber, a health care economist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testified before the committee on health care reform. I thought he was an unbiased expert, but was later disappointed to hear that he had been paid over $400,000 by the Administration to help advance the president’s health care proposals. At the very least, he should have been straightforward with the Committee and disclosed this financial interest.
In addition to his testimony before the Finance Committee, Dr. Gruber testified in front of the HELP Committee and was also a high-profile supporter of the Administration’s health care reform effort in the media. In only a handful of his many articles on health care reform did he disclose his financial conflict of interest.
While the propriety of Dr. Gruber advocating for Administration positions in the media and other venues while failing to disclose his financial ties to the Administration has been called into question, I am especially concerned about his advocacy before the United States Congress. When an academic leader comes before Congress to advocate a position, Congress should have confidence that the witness is both independent and objective and not being paid to assist the Administration, or any other organization, in its efforts.
Equally troubling is the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been unresponsive to efforts by Senator Enzi and me to learn more about their practice of hiring consultants to advance the President’s agenda.
The fact that this expert was paid by the Administration – and hid that fact from Congress - really taints everything this particular advocate told the committees. If Congress had been aware of his arrangement with HHS prior to his testimony, we would have had the opportunity to clarify that relationship with Dr. Gruber before considering his opinions and ideas. Unfortunately, when we learn about it after the fact, it completely discredits the information he presented.
To follow up on this alarming news, Senator Enzi and I sent a letter to Dr. Gruber on January 26, 2010, asking him for details of any other government contracts he might have or might have had over the last five years and for details on whether he disclosed his government ties during media interviews, speaking engagements and written works on health care reform.
Dr. Gruber’s response failed to answer any of the questions posed in the letter. Instead, the response barely exceeded one page in length, was dismissive of any concern about the lack of disclosure and attempted to excuse his failure to disclose and to explain away the need for any detailed response. Furthermore, Dr. Gruber did not even commit to providing any such disclosure of the financial relationship with the Administration in the future.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gruber’s failure to answer our questions came as no surprise. In my 30 years serving in the United States Congress, I have found that chasing answers on the back end is much more difficult than requiring clarity and transparency from the start. And many of my colleagues might be surprised to find out that although many witnesses voluntarily disclose their affiliations or relationships so that they can explain them, no Senate committee currently requires witnesses to disclose potential conflicts of interest.
Dr. Gruber even highlighted this point when he said in his February 23 letter that, “to the best of my recollection, during the course of my health care reform work with Congress, no Member or staffer ever asked me whether I held any government contracts.”
In retrospect, if we were to have asked Dr. Gruber to disclose his agreements with the Administration up front, we would have had the ability to ask him questions in-person, and he would have been given a chance to explain the relationship before testifying, so that his testimony could be given its proper weight. Our failure as an institution to ask for transparency in testimony is a problem that has a simple solution, a solution that most other institutions that rely on the work of academic experts have already implemented. The solution is to simply ask witnesses who come before the Senate to disclose any potential conflicts of interest up front.
Our colleagues in the House of Representatives are already requiring witnesses to do this and there is no reason why we shouldn’t require the same level of transparency from witnesses who come before the Senate.
That is why today I am introducing the Witness Sunshine Resolution. This resolution will make the Senate committee hearings more transparent and thus more credible and valuable to the legislative process. It achieves this goal by requiring each witness that appears before any Senate committee to submit a form disclosing outside affiliations and financial interests in any organizations, including government entities, which are directly related to the topic of the committee hearing.
In August, I was happy to learn that the Administration is supportive of this idea. In an August 4 letter, Secretary Sebelius wrote me saying, “Should the Senate Finance Committee or any other Congressional Committee choose to [require witnesses to submit financial disclosure forms in advance of an appearance before the Committee], I would certainly encourage HHS contractors to fully comply with [that requirement].”
So adopting this rule should be an easy decision for the Senate. Our colleagues in the House of Representatives have been requiring this level of transparency for over a decade and now we know that the Administration supports the idea as well. The House tells me that their witnesses are not overburdened or discouraged to offer testimony because of this requirement. I have carefully drafted this resolution so that the requirement for transparency similarly does not burden Senate witnesses.
It is time for this body to meet the standards for transparency set by the House and followed in so many other institutions across the country. Supporting my resolution will help ensure that future testimony can be given its proper weight, and end the uncertainty of unknown interests influencing testimony. I urge my colleagues to support my resolution.