The new Gilded Age, as glitzy today as it was 150 years ago
Senator Tuberville on banning members of Congress from trading stocks: “I think it’s ridiculous. They might as well start sending robots up here.”
In 1873, Mark Twain released The Gilded Age, a book satirizing the political greed and corruption running rampant in the post-Civil War era of his day. The book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, describes the era as “an age of corruption when crooked land speculators, ruthless bankers, and dishonest politicians voraciously took advantage of the nation’s peacetime optimism.”
Today America is not at peace at home or abroad, nor is at legally at war; in the absence of a popular satirist, below is a tweet from a Twitter account helping to illustrate modern corruption:
Along with Insider who just yesterday detailed 63 members of Congress (Democrats and Republicans alike) who violated insider trading laws, America once again faces the crucible of needing to establish a new democracy while its leaders are knee-deep in the muck. After the Civil War, Amendments provided only so much solace as an entire segment of the population was victimized by white supremacists and degraded by segregation. Today, in the aftermath of one half the nation convinced the hated ex-President primarily won because of nefarious foreign ties and the party poised to retake Congress will rely on votes of those who believe in a 2020 election hoax, trust in the federal government is waning. Not to mention how the nation feels about recent events in Texas, the Supreme Court and billions being spent on a proxy war that cannot be called what it is.
Integrity is just a word
The STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act was enacted in 2012 “to prohibit members of Congress and employees of Congress from using nonpublic information derived from their official positions for personal benefit, and for other purposes.” This law passed overwhelmingly in Congress by a vote of 96-3 in the Senate and 417-2 in the House of Representatives.
Ten years later, it is being violated en masse.
Insider’s 5 month investigation referenced above was released in December 2021; that investigation revealed 13 members of Congress have multiple financial issues that expose them to ethical problems and 116 members of Congress are borderline and deserve greater scrutiny. To put another way, of 535 federal legislators, nearly 1 out of 4 could have violated the STOCK Act along with 180+ Congressional staffers. And both political parties are just as culpable.
The same month Insider reported their investigative report, they also reported that during the pandemic “at least 75 lawmakers bought and sold stock in companies that make COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests.” Unusual Whales within a month of that bombshell reported that based on public financial disclosures from December 1, 2020 to December 22, 2021, on average Congress beat the market! Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and dozens of other lawmakers, while doing their day job of being legislators, somehow all outperformed the S&P 500. Perhaps America has truly elected the best and brightest to office?
Of course when these reports broke late last year into early 2022, multiple members of Congress were asked about the ethics of what is tantamount to insider trading (i.e. trading stocks of companies that appear before Congressional committees and divulge information to legislators and their staff that is not publicly available). Pelosi’s initial response is above. A reportedly worse violator than Pelosi is Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw who on the podcast All American Savage Show said:
If you want only millionaires and billionaires to run for Congress, then keep making sure we can’t raise our pay. Just keep in mind that no one will run for Congress because you have no way to better yourself.
This theme was echoed by Republican Senator Tuberville, another STOCK act violator, to MSNBC columnist Eric Michael Garcia:
Such responses are eerily reminiscent of how financial executives, members of the government and the mass media reported why Wall Street executives were entitled to bonuses after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Do you recall hearing something along the lines of “If these executives don’t receive a fair bonus, then they will leave the company and take their business with them. And as we try to repair the damage done and move into economic recovery, we need their leadership.”? Such extraordinary leadership.
And as you may guess, the issue goes far beyond mere integrity. Lives are put in jeopardy by these extremely selfish decisions. Take for example, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt (A Republican, but in terms of this type of corruption, party has no bearing). Senator Blunt, according to an investigation by a More Perfect Union, had $250,000 of stock in Lockheed Martin when the Senate debated a bill to block the sale of $23.5 billion of Lockheed Martin fighter jets and drones to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Only one Republican Senator spoke on the Senate floor in favor of the bill, despite the UAE government’s human rights abuses. And by a slim margin, that bill passed. Just one of many examples that have been reported to date.
Surely not everyone in Congress is corrupt?
Thankfully, not all legislators are in on the take and several have proposed legislation to reform blatant corruption from conflicts of interest.
A bill proposed by Senators Jon Ossoff (Democrat from Georgia) and Senator Mark Kelly (Democrat from Arizona) would require members of Congress, their spouses and dependent children to place their stocks into a blind trust, which would allow legislators and their staff to keep their assets but prohibit transactions.
Senator Josh Hawley (Republican from Missouri) favors a bill similar to the one above but does not ban dependent children and would have the Government Accountability Office provide oversight, not Congressional ethics committees.
Senator Merkley along with 2 other Senators (and 15 Representatives in the House of Representatives) have introduced a Ban Conflicted Trading Act, which “would force all members of Congress and staffers to file certain high-level disclosures to sell all stocks, non-Treasury bonds, options contracts and derivatives they own within six months of the bill’s enactment or after taking office. Lawmakers and covered staff can ask to transfer their holdings into a blind trust and can still make investments in most retirement accounts.”
Senators Elizabeth Warren (Democrat from Massachusetts) and Steve Daines (Republican from Montana) introduced their own bipartisan legislation (with a similar bill in the House of Representatives) called the Bipartisan Ban on Congressional Stock Ownership Act. Specifically, members of Congress and their spouses cannot trade individual stocks but can trade mutual funds and ETFs. Violators can be fined up to $50K for each violation, which would be enforced by the Department of Justice.
And though it may seem that having several bills at once ensures none will be passed, there is a silver lining. The problem is so prevalent among both parties that it cannot be made into a culture war issue and consistent public pressure makes it difficult to ignore and bury in committee. Public rage can be combined across the nation and directed at corrupt officials as a whole to give compliant lawmakers the opportunity to increase the public’s trust in government.
Gallup reported the last time more than half the nation trusted the federal government was in 2012. Less than 6 months after President Obama signed the STOCK act into law, almost 2 out of every 3 Americans polled had a Fair Amount or a Great Deal of trust in the federal government to handle international and domestic problems. The most recent poll in September 2021 had 60% poll to have No or Not Very Much trust in the federal government. And earlier this year, a survey by the Convention of States Action found three out of 4 voters agree that members of Congress should not be able to trade stocks while serving in office.
Knowing gun reform legislation is more illusory than imminent reality, anti-war initiatives are unwelcome in either political party and the legality of abortion will cleave the nation further, weeding out corruption could help, at least momentarily, keep hope alive in the future of American democracy.
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