Insider trading on Capitol Hill: Debate over restrictions heats up

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    Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

    Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)


     
    (NEW YORK) MintPress — What was supposed to be a rare feel-good bill in Congress has instead  sparked vitriolic debate in both chambers and once again pitted the interests of Wall Street against those of main street.

    Earlier this month, the Senate passed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which would bar lawmakers from trading stocks based on economic or political information they receive at congressional briefings. It would also require members of Congress to publicly detail each transaction they make within 30 days; they currently have a year to disclose trades. Exactly one week later, the House passed the STOCK Act as well.

    But there was one not so small difference between the two versions. The House cut a provision requiring people who collect and trade so-called political intelligence — information from the government that can move markets and stock prices — to register just like lobbyists if they want to talk with officials in Congress so that the public knows who they are and what they’re doing. Instead, the House bill requires just a study of the industry’s activities within 12 months.

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    Bi-partisan backlash

    Most Democratic legislators, and even some Republicans, slammed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) for the watered down bill.

    Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who proposed the amendment targeting the political intelligence industry, said in a statement “It’s astonishing and extremely disappointing that the House would fulfill Wall Street’s wishes by killing this provision.” He continued, “If Congress delays action, the political intelligence industry will stay in the shadows, just the way Wall Street likes it.”

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    Cantor on the defensive

    Cantor (R-Va.) argued that work on the legislation, which was conducted in secret before being introduced on the House floor, actually strengthened the measure. Directing the political intelligence issue, he said, “I think that is a provision that raises an awful lot of questions. I think there’s a lot of discussion and debate about who and what would qualify and fall under the suggested language that came from the Senate.”

    Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who originally introduced the STOCK Act in the House in March, 2006, disagreed. “The thing we greatly feared has come upon us,” she said. “It has been weakened, totally, as far as I’m concerned.”  Slaughter and other House Democrats say they backed the bill in order to move it forward to a conference with the Senate to discuss the differences.

    House and Senate leaders must now appoint a conference committee if any version of the STOCK Act is to be passed and presented to President Obama.

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    Extreme measures

    Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) insists that no matter what the STOCK Act looks like in the end, it has too many loopholes to be anything other than a symbolic gesture. Duffy, a former District Attorney who now serves on the Committee on Financial Services, has instead. introduced a bill known as the RESTRICT (Restoring Ethical Standards, Transparency, and Responsibility in Congressional Trading) Act.

    In an opinion-editorial in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, Duffy wrote, “It’s time Congress led with the transparency and accountability worthy of our office. In an age of dysfunctional government and growing public cynicism, the RESTRICT Act is one of those rare bills that can help restore confidence in government and unite commonsense Americans on both sides of the aisle.”

    Supporters of The RESTRICT Act say its  strength  lies in its simplicity:  The bill would require all members of Congress to either place their assets in a blind trust or submit to a three-day public disclosure requirement for any and all investments.

    One of its biggest fans: conservative writer Peter Schweizer, research fellow at Stanford University‘s Hoover Institution, author of  Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison, and, as of late,  foreign policy adviser to former Governor of Alaska and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

    “Transparency is the key here,” he says of the RESTRICT Act. “That is how we hold them accountable.” Schweizer even goes one step further. “And let’s not limit our efforts to Congress. What about the executive branch and the White House?”

    The Tea Party meets Occupy Wall Street? Perhaps more so than the Conservative Political Action Conference, which met in Washington, D.C. last week and featured a discussion entitled “The Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street,” would have us think.

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