Even while Congress sprints to pass a major reform bill that gained momentum following one media exposé, the hits keep coming.
In the past two weeks, the New York Times reported Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) might have taken campaign donations over the legal limit, Roll Call reported Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) received double reimbursements for travel, and the Washington Post released a report connecting earmarks to properties owned by Members.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama switched his position on super PACs, urging bundlers to help bring in donations unlimited in size, something he once called a “threat to democracy,” and he returned $200,000 in donations from the family of a fugitive casino magnate.
“Eighty-six percent of the public thinks we’re not worth a warm bucket of spit. And you’ve heard me say I’m looking for the other 14 to find out why they’re not part of the 86 percent. I’m part of the 86 percent,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday.
The volatile public mood is greasing the skids for the House to pass the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, legislation codifying a ban on insider trading by Members. The Senate passed the bill last week.
While insider trading is already illegal, backers say legislation is needed to ensure the law will apply to Members of Congress who are privy to nonpublic information.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will bring the STOCK Act to the floor Thursday, and a senior GOP aide said it is likely language will be offered to “strengthen and expand” the legislation by applying the bill’s provisions to the executive branch, preventing Members convicted of crimes from receiving taxpayer-funded pensions and banning Members from receiving special access to initial public offerings.
It was unclear at press time whether the legislation would come to the floor under suspension of the rules or otherwise. The House Rules Committee approved a rule Tuesday that would allow it to come to the floor through Thursday under suspension.
“It is unacceptable for anyone in this body to profit from nonpublic information,” Cantor said.
Lawmakers know there is peril in opposing the measure, even on the merits.
“Great bill. Way to reinforce the fact that we’re a bunch of crooks, even when we’re not. I’m a yes,” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) deadpanned.
The bill’s path is also drawing warnings that Congress might overreach.
“I always get a little nervous when Congress rushes through legislation. It tends to either overreact or miss the mark,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), a GOP deputy whip.
Three months ago, the STOCK Act was “nowhere,” said House Rules ranking member Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), an author of the version of the bill introduced in the House.
Then, on Nov. 13, CBS’ “60 Minutes” ran a segment on instances in which Members may have used knowledge they gleaned from their positions in Congress to profit in the stock market.
“Everyone kept coming up to me saying, ‘I signed on to your bill,’ ‘I signed on to your bill.’ I thought, ‘Hallelujah! Which bill is that?’ And when they told me the STOCK Act, having peddled that thing for six years — the largest number of co-sponsors we ever had was maybe 10,” Slaughter said Tuesday. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Within weeks, nearly 100 Members signed on and it was introduced in the Senate.
Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), another author of the House bill, credited “prairie populism on the left and the tea party on the right” with providing the momentum.
Brought up in the Senate last week, the bill became a magnet for amendments on far-reaching ethics reforms.
The large majority of the 96-3 vote on Thursday masked discomfort over some of the provisions.
“Over in the Senate, they were trying to outdo each other by upping the ante,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said. “Bottom line: It reflects a lack of confidence in Congress by the American public. The one significant advantage of passing it is to try to revive some confidence.”
“When you look at the esteem in which Congress is held, the need to provide concrete evidence of reform of the institution is compelling,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said public outcry was good in that it provokes Congress to act.
“Sometimes good things happen in a volatile mood. And if this idea happens, it would be a good thing,” he said.
Though a large bipartisan majority is expected to pass the bill, House Republicans and Democrats skirmished over particulars.
For instance, the House GOP amendment includes a provision tagged the “Pelosi provision” to highlight House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s role in the “60 Minutes” report that helped set off the firestorm.
The provision is “specifically designed around the allegations of Speaker Pelosi mentioned in the ‘60 Minutes’ piece. The Pelosi provision prohibits Members of Congress, executive branch officials and their staffs from receiving special access to initial public offerings because of their position,” the senior GOP aide said.
The “60 Minutes” report questioned whether Pelosi had a “conflict of interest” in participating in an initial public offering for credit card company Visa when legislation affecting credit card companies was making its way through the House.
At a news conference, the California Democrat said it wasn’t a conflict of interest and pointed to her record on legislation affecting credit card companies. Her office later called the segment a “right-wing smear,” CBS reported.
Meanwhile, Slaughter sought to highlight a provision in the Senate bill requiring consultants at political intelligence firms — which keep Wall Street traders apprised of what’s happening in Washington, D.C. — to register as lobbyists.
It’s the “most important” part of the bill, she said, unloading on Cantor because of changes he might make. “What Cantor’s trying to do for his friends, I don’t know. … I think ‘strengthening’ here is a euphemism for weakening.”
Asked whether the registration provision would be included in the House bill, Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said, “The purpose of the bill has always been to ensure that Members of Congress do not use insider information gained through public office for personal profit.”