By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval to one of the most sweeping ethics laws in years, clamping down on insider trading by lawmakers and administration officials in an election year push to improve the public’s low opinion of political Washington.
The Senate advanced the legislation overwhelmingly on Thursday, 96-3, sending it to President Barack Obama, who had called for such a measure during his State of the Union address.
Few lawmakers wanted to stand in the way of ethics reforms, and the once-modest bill was received with gusto in Congress — even though one of its most compelling provisions was stripped by Republicans in the House.
A popular amendment would have shed sunlight on the evolving trade in “political intelligence” — the practice of selling the inside scoop on legislative action to traders on Wall Street. It won bipartisan support in the Senate last month only to be gutted by House GOP leaders.
Rather than continue to pursue the provision, Democratic leaders in the Senate declined to fight a practice that is important to the financial industry.
“It’s once again, an example of Wall Street being heard in Washington, and maybe the common person throughout the United States not having (their) will expressed,” said Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who crafted the political intelligence provision.
Grassley’s measure would not have banned the practice of selling political insight, but would have required those who broker in such information to register, as lobbyists are now required to do.
“We ought to know who these people that seek political and economic espionage — we ought to bring all of that out of the shadow,” Grassley said. Leaders of both parties, he said, were to blame for allowing that provision to “just magically disappear.”
Versions of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge, or STOCK Act, had been circulating for years, but gained import after reports that lawmakers were using their political positions for personal financial gain.
The legislation expressly prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from using nonpublic information for investment and trading decisions, amending various federal regulations to include them in the ban.
As the bill made its way through the Congress last month, senators engaged in robust debate and loaded it up with amendments, including one that extended the trading ban to members of the executive branch. Just three senators and two members of the House voted against it.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader, acknowledged the shortcomings in the final product. “We know more must be done,” she said.
Craig Holman, a chief lobbyist for Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group, called passage “a victory of sorts. … But it is also a missed opportunity for more sweeping ethics reforms.”