I subscribe to the Times, but I stopped routinely reading all of the editorials, op-eds and letters to the editor once I realized the stultifying and depressing sameness of it all: narrow viewpoints, deranged columnists, and ugly bias, day after day. This Christmas Eve-day dawned with my wife in a panic, the tree decorations still incomplete, and a recognition that I was going to have to get Ethics Alarms posts done in the midst of other tasks so the 30 or so readers likely to tune in here today wouldn’t be disappointed. I grabbed the wrong section of yesterday’s Times during a tree-breather, and had to consume the editorial section.
For once, the main editorial was not an anti-Trump screed.
Appropo of the Democratic candidates’ mantra of corruption (though the editors somehow never saw the connection), it was about the persistent insider trading and conflicts of interest that have made Senators and Representatives unethically rich for ages, and that surpass in genuine corruption anything President Trump has been accused of. (Ethics Alarms covered the issue here, and here.) The Times editors began with the saga of former Rep. Chris Collins, who had to resign his office and also went to jail for breaking the insider trading laws. His crime was tipping off his son about a stock likely to go bad based on his early notice of pending legislation, The Times found it convenient to use Collins, a Republican, as the stand-in for all of Congress, but everything he did before crossing the line of the law is, if not routine, disturbingly common among Democrats and Republicans alike:
[H]e served on various congressional committees that played a role in directing federal health care policy. Mr. Collins was the company’s largest shareholder. He served on the company’s board. He solicited investments in the company, including from other members of Congress. (Tom Price, who served as a Republican representative from Georgia and then as secretary of health and human services in the Trump administration, was among the buyers.) Mr. Collins wrote legislative language to expedite drug trials, potentially benefiting Innate, and he pressed a staff member at the National Institutes of Health to meet with the company about its clinical trial.He also invested in other health care firms, some of which held federal contracts.
Undoubtedly, Collins was an extreme example of Congressional self-dealing (and, since he is a Republican, the Times managed to cover this large area of Congressional corruption without once mentioning a Democrat. Nah, there’s no mainstream media bias!) but the temptation for members to profit from their special status and influence is hard to resist. None of what Collins did before blabbing to his son was illegal (though it was all unethical), but the Times correctly observed that the temptation to profit is too strong for many Senators and Representatives to resist, and that, ethics failing, the law needs to step in:
Congress took an important step in 2012, passing a law that bars members and their aides from trading on the basis of confidential information that they receive as lawmakers. The law also strengthened disclosure requirements. It has made a difference. The volume of stock trading by members of Congress declined by 65 percent in the three years after it took effect, compared with the three years before its passage, according to a 2017 study by Public Citizen.
Congress also passed a bill in 2013 reversing some of the disclosure requirements that it had established and celebrated just one year before. The original bill, for example, mandated the creation of a searchable online database of trades by members and aides. The 2013 law made it harder to identify wrongdoing, allowing members of Congress to submit disclosures in a form that is not easily searchable.
Yet nothing but ethics alarms stops members of Congress from voting for or against measures based on their financial interests rather than the public interest. There are still loopholes that make insider trading impossible to prove and very profitable. (The Times quickly fingers another Republican. Since we know that Democrats are just as likely to engage in this practice (How did Nancy Pelosi become so rich while serving in Congress?), the Times only using GOP offenders is defiant bias by the Times. It the editors cared about being perceived as bias, they easily could have criticized members of both parties. The Times knows its readers want them to be biased. (Why do I subscribe to this rag again? I seem to have forgotten.)
The editorial concludes, “The most comprehensive solution would be to require people who are elected to Congress to divest holdings in public companies within a reasonable period following their election. But such a requirement could impose significant costs on people entering public service. It would be nearly as effective, and less burdensome, to bar members from buying or selling shares.”
(The editors appear to see no contradiction between their sympathy for Senators and Representatives forced to sell their holdings in public companies and their “resistance” compatriots claiming the President Trump’s continuing to own hotels violates the Emoluments Clause, something no one considered until he was elected.)
My comment on this topic in 2018, after Collins resigned:
Members of the Senate and Houses are both permitted to hold stock in companies that they may help by passing legislation. Incredibly, they don’t even have to recuse themselves from a vote or other action that might affect their own holdings. This is unethical (and ridiculous) of course, and essentially an institutionally-sanctioned conflict of interest that proves Congress isn’t serious about limiting the ability of elected officials to illicitly profit from their elected post.
A pending bill was introduced earlier this year that would require members to either put their holdings in blind trusts, to refrain from any trading until they leave Congress. The bill also would bar members of Congress from serving on corporate boards. Even that bill, however, wouldn’t stop members from voting for or against legislation according to how their holdings would be affected.
Any grandstanding in any debate by a Senator or Representative about the “corrupt” White House should be immediately followed by a question regarding what that member of Congress has done to stop the unambiguous corruption in their own branch.
Or have they been profiting from it all along?