Under the heading of How is this not already illegal? comes the latest effort in Congress to prohibit sitting lawmakers from trading stocks. In an era of rock-bottom public trust in the institutions of government, ending this inherently shady-looking scenario shouldn’t garner a single “no” vote.
It’s an old issue that has taken on added relevance since early 2020, when the U.S. began descending into a pandemic that most Americans didn’t know would be the economic tsunami it became. But members of Congress had better information, getting closed-door briefings about the approaching public health catastrophe and the society-altering response that would be necessary.
Several sitting members dumped investments just before a stock market plunge that they were in a position to see coming while most other investors weren’t. Newly unsealed FBI documents show that Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, for example, abruptly sold more than half of his and his wife’s holdings right before the soaring market suddenly collapsed under the impact of economic shutdowns. Then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Georgia, meanwhile, suddenly bought stock — in a remote-meeting technology company that was about to become one of the few market winners of the pandemic.
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People have gone to prison for circumstances that look this much like insider trading. But none of these pandemic profiteers did. Some are still in office. Ethics probes by their own colleagues were ultimately dropped. No wonder Congress’ approval rating is under 20% these days. The only mystery, in fact, is how it is that almost one-fifth of Americans still give these shameless self-dealers the benefit of the doubt.
It’s not that no one in Congress has proposed stock-trading bans. They’ve actually become a relatively popular idea, drawing support from such politically disparate voices as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri. Congressional leaders in both parties say they’re in favor — because, really, who could reasonably oppose it?
And yet it keeps not happening.
The latest effort is a public letter from a bipartisan group of House members pressing congressional leaders to embrace a set of reform “first principles.” The letter pulls no punches, stating bluntly that the goal is to ultimately pass legislation “to end insider trading by Members of Congress.” It would require members, their spouses and dependents under 18 to either divest their holdings or put them in blind trusts, standard mutual funds, U.S. Treasury bills or other forms that would prevent the holders from having direct control over the investments.
These now-familiar ideas are such common sense that to find a member of Congress today willing to openly oppose them would be difficult. But as long as congressional leaders offer platitudes toward reform without actually bringing it to the floor, Americans are justified in assuming they’re still putting their portfolios above their public duty.