Luis M. Alvarez, Associated Press
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012.
WASHINGTON — With members of Congress convinced their political survival depends on their image, the House is wasting no time in considering a Senate-passed bill that would ban insider trading by lawmakers and thousands of executive branch officials. Stock trades would have to be posted online within 30 days.
The Senate showed a rare display of bipartisanship Thursday to pass the bill 96-3, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said it would be before the House next week. President Barack Obama repeated a pledge to sign it immediately.
"With approval ratings of Congress at an all-time low, this bill represents an opportunity to build some trust with the American people," said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., a chief sponsor of the bill. "The truth is, members of Congress have access to all kinds of sensitive information, and it has to be clear that the information is being used to serve our country, not to make a personal profit."
Congress' approval ratings have been in the teens lately.
Cantor said, "Insider trading at any level of the federal government is unacceptable. We will quickly review the entire bill and the amendments that were added ... to ensure that public servants, whether in the legislative or executive branch, do not personally profit from insider information.
"It is critical that the bill we send to the president guarantees that the same rules apply to those in the federal government as they do to everyone else."
Obama praised the Senate.
"No one should be able to trade stocks based on nonpublic information gleaned on Capitol Hill," the president said. "So I'm pleased the Senate took bipartisan action to pass the STOCK Act. I urge the House of Representatives to pass this bill, and I will sign it right away."
Obama said still more ethics restrictions were needed, "like prohibiting elected officials from owning stocks in industries they impact."
Several amendments were added to the bill before final passage.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., won an amendment to include the 28,000 government workers in the executive branch in the bill, saying it would create a level playing field with the requirements for Congress. But the same amendment included conflicting language by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., that would apply to only 2,000 top policymakers — including the president, vice president and members of the Federal Reserve Board. Lieberman disputed Shelby's numbers, saying 300,000 executive branch workers could be affected.
A House-Senate conference will have to reconcile the two versions.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, successfully added language that would require "political intelligence" operatives to register and disclose affiliations, the same as lobbyists. These individuals are hired by stock traders to obtain useful information from members of Congress and their staffs.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate's ethics committee, and senior committee Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia won an amendment that would force disclosure of all residential mortgages — by members of Congress, the president, the vice president and most Senate-confirmed appointees. Currently senators are not required to list all mortgages.
The Securities and Exchange Commission said laws prohibiting trading on inside, non-public information clearly cover members of Congress. In 2005, the SEC investigated then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee concerning his divestiture of stock in the family's hospital company days before its price fell on an analyst's forecast. Frist was not charged with wrongdoing.
To a large extent, Congress is reacting to a segment on CBS' "60 Minutes" that raised questions about stock trades by House Speaker John Boehner, the husband of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., chairman of the Financial Services Committee. All have denied wrongdoing and denounced the network's story.
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Republicans insisted on including top government officials outside the Congress in the bill even though they also are covered by insider trading regulations and face tougher conflict-of-interest restrictions than members of Congress. In some cases, executive branch officials are required to divest themselves of stock holdings that pose a conflict. Lawmakers don't have to do that and the Senate bill would not require it.
In addition to the 30-day online reporting requirement, the Senate would have to join the House in posting members' annual financial disclosure statements online instead of making only paper copies available on request.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., proposed wiping out the entire bill and substituting a simple certification by senators each year that they did not participate in insider trading. It was defeated, with 37 senators voting "yes" and 61 opposed.