The US Senate passed the STOCK Act on Thursday by a vote of 96-3. That’s the bill that prevents senators, representatives and their staffs from trading stocks and securities based on insider information they’ve picked up via their privileges as members of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.
But despite the fast track in getting the bill approved, senators demonstrated the sausage-making tendencies that are just one of the reasons the public is so unhappy with the legislative process. Endless amendments were proposed, some in pursuit of genuine reform, others simply for political advantage or mischief making, almost derailing the entire effort. “Part of what frustrates people around here is that we can’t focus for five minutes to get something accomplished,” North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad complained to Politico.com. “Instead, everything becomes a Christmas tree and then, guess what? It never passes.”
Nonetheless, faced with the potential embarrassment in an election year of failing to pass the internal reform, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did some insider trading of their own and worked out a deal on the number of amendments to be considered. But the bill still contains more than some had bargained for.
According to The Washington Post, “During an afternoon of rapid-fire votes Thursday, the Senate [also] extended the insider-trading restrictions to senior members of the executive branch. The legislation now requires lawmakers and senior executive branch officials, for the first time, to reveal all mortgage information for their primary residence. In a unanimous voice vote, the Senate approved a prohibition on bonuses to senior executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, following reports that the two mortgage giants had approved nearly $13 million in bonuses to 10 executives.
“In addition, members of the so-called political intelligence industry — insiders who try to learn in advance the outcome of legislation for hedge-fund and investment-house clients, who then place stock bets based on that information — would now be required to disclose their activities, just as lobbyists trying to influence the outcome must do.”
All good stuff, yet the website Talking Point Memo is skeptical: “Senators from both sides of the aisle practically fell over themselves to herald the bill’s passage and tout the importance of restoring the public’s trust in Congress. But does the bill really help with that? Critics say it’s heavy on grandstanding, but short on substance.”
One of the amendments that was defeated, 40-59, sponsored by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, would have put a permanent Senate ban on earmarks, those cash prizes members salt into legislation for pet projects back home. Instead, Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced that his committee will extend an earmark moratorium through the 2013 spending bills.
This comes in the wake of last week’s report from the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) that found seven former members of Congress, “all of whom left office within the past five years, collecting lobbying fees for institutions they earmarked to while in office… The members collectively earmarked more than $70 million to the organizations they went on to represent, and have pulled in a total of nearly $1.9 million from the work.” They include former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott from Mississippi, whose lobbying firm had a $50,000 a month contract with aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman.
The same week as the CREW investigation, former Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt announced he no longer would seek $90,000 in lobbying fees from the town of Hull, Mass., which is trying to get federal assistance for an offshore wind energy plant. He’ll work for free instead. “While in Congress,” The New York Times reported, “Mr. Delahunt earmarked $1.7 million for the same project, and he was to be paid 80 percent of his monthly consulting fees out of that same pot of money.”
Busted. By the way, shortly after Thursday’s Senate vote, a press release from the sponsors of the House version of the bill announced that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had “relented and agreed to finally bring the STOCK Act to the House floor for a vote” next week. Progress, such as it is, in Congress.