June 26, 2012

“SEND ME A BILL that bans insider trading by members of Congress; I will sign it tomorrow.” Included in President Obama’s Jan. 24 State of the Union address, that line helped inspire the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, a bipartisan bill signed into law less than three months later that prohibits members of Congress from using non-public information for financial gain.

Preventing insider trading on Capitol Hill was a necessary first step in curbing what the president called the “deficit of trust” between Washington and the rest of the country. According to a recent investigative report by The Post, however, there is more to the problem. While the STOCK Act may stop legislators from using specific, private information to benefit themselves or their families, it doesn’t stop them from changing their investment portfolios after meetings with Federal Reserve and Treasury Department officials or from trading in the companies that lobby bills before their committees. Somehow this information is considered “public.”

As The Post revealed, at the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, no fewer than 34 members of Congress attempted to restructure their financial portfolios after conversations or meetings with former Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., his successor, Timothy F. Geithner, or Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. By the same token, 130 members, or their families, have traded shares of companies that appeared before their committees. It’s worth noting that Congress forbids top administration officials from trading in industries they can influence. Perhaps it’s time for lawmakers to apply to themselves the standards they set for officials they oversee.

Even with STOCK in place, these representatives still seem to have an investing advantage over the everyday Americans they represent. When pressed on this point, the typical response lawmakers give — and, indeed, the one many gave The Post — is that with a diverse investment portfolio, it’s next to impossible to avoid any kind of overlap. That may be true, and it may also be true that the timing of the trades cited was coincidental. At a minimum, it looks bad. Any sensible American would say that these lawmakers ought to know better.

Ideally, members of Congress wouldn’t own and trade in individual stocks, and they would put their holdings in blind trusts. Only six members of the Senate have done so; the House doesn’t even keep a tally. That might be a place to start. Until Congress tightens its rules, including with a more effective disclosure process, Americans will have to live with an uncertain image of their legislators: Are they the public servants they make themselves out to be, or are they self-servants as well?