It might be different if this were the members of Congress themselves (whose salaries are set by statute) or perhaps their most senior aides. Can it really matter to “the public interest” precisely how much a senator or representative pays the twentysomethings who toil in a legislative office answering the mail or tracking the activities of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation?
If the benefits are worth it, then that’s fine, but too often we assume sunshine is healthy and ignore privacy. How many of us would like to have our salary available on the internet?
Now, as public radio’s Marketplace reports, the site has also posted the financial disclosure forms that senior staff must fill out. One dimension of this additional disclosure is less troubling than the salary data because, as I said back then, there is increasingly persuasive justification for sunshine as the responsibility and power of the staffer increase. Only senior staff (currently those earning over $111,000 a year) fill out these forms.
But another dimension potentially is more troubling, because these forms are extremely detailed. The Hill reports that some staff are alarmed that the forms include sensitive data such as “bank account numbers, signatures, home addresses and children’s names.” LegiStorm has scrubbed out social security numbers and account numbers, but “refused to remove the names of children, home addresses and staffers’ signatures.”
For its part, LegiStorm released a rather pugnacious statement accusing the congressional aides of “hysteria” and insisting that all responsibility for safeguarding privacy lies with individual staffers and with the House office that handles the forms, and not at all with the web site. Legally, they probably are right; usually information that the government makes public cannot be retracted. Practically speaking, it would be smart for the House to redesign its forms to request less sensitive information and to warn staff that the forms are public, and now online. And some of the concerns advanced by (often anonymous) staffers in the stories seem rather far-fetched.
But I also wonder why LegiStorm’s stance can’t be a little more cooperative, trying to balance legitimate interests in both transparency and privacy. One result of the heated tone of the disagreement may well be a reduction in the detail about staff finances the House makes public in any form. The whole dispute illustrates the difference between “public” documents available in a file room somewhere and “public” documents on the web. The idea that everything “public” must move online, unaltered, has always struck me as simplistic — and certainly not as obvious as LegiStorm seems to think.