Congress Clouds the Already Weak Transparency of the STOCK Act;Updated

by Whitney Pitcher
CapitolBuilding
At the end of last week without even a vote, both the House and the Senate approved a repeal of a portion of the STOCK Act.  The STOCK Act, signed into law last Spring, is a transparency and ethics law aimed primarily at Congress and their staff. The law requires those individuals to disclose their conflicts of interests (such as stock purchases) and  prohibits the use of non-public information for private profit. However, the bill also applies to many higher ranking federal employees as well. With the repeal of the portion of this bill (if signed by the President),  two components of transparency will become opaque, as detailed by the Sunshine Foundation (emphasis added):

The bill enacted last year would require already public financial disclosures of senior congressional and executive branch officials to be put online in order to prevent or root out insider trading. There were concerns that some provisions of the bill were overbroad and would put some government employees at risk. Rather than craft narrow exemptions, or even delay implementation until proper protections could be created, the Senate decided instead to exclude legislative and executive staffers from the online disclosure requirements.  

The sweeping exemption goes even farther than critics of the disclosure requirements requested. For those to whom online disclosure would still apply (the president, vice president, members of Congress, congressional candidates and individuals subject to Senate confirmation) the Senate bill made electronic filing of the information optional and struck the requirement that online information be searchable, sortable and downloadable, making even the disclosures that remain in the bill tepid and relatively unusable.

Even prior to the aforementioned legislation, implementation of the STOCK Act had already been delayed multiple times. Additionally, the bill was not even available for public consumption on the  Library of Congress website until after the measure was approved by Congress. Imagine that–a bill that would repeal transparency passed through Congress in a non-transparent manner.

In today’s data-driven, information age, if such government information is not online, it is essentially useless to the American public. How will constituents be able to hold their leaders and their leaders’ staff accountable if such information in not available online? If such online disclosure is merely optional, there is little motivation for politicians to be voluntarily transparent.

The STOCK Act was the ultimately a hybrid of two bills proposed by Republican Senator Scott Brown and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. When the STOCK Act was being discussed in Congress, Governor Sarah Palin called the bill ” particularly weak” because they did not require Congress to disclose their stock purchase or trades immediately. Governor Palin supported a more stringent bill from Congressman Sean Duffy,which would have required all Congressmen to create blind trusts or disclose stock trades within three days. Duffy’s bill never made it out of committee.

The research and work of Peter Schweizer led to such legislation being seriously considered at all. Legislation banning insider trading never got any traction until Schweizer’s book Throw Them All Out was released in 2011. Schweizer called the passage of the STOCK Act a “victory”, but noted that the bill did not go “nearly far enough to deal with the problems of cronyism and corruption that we face.”

What must Governor Palin and Peter Schweizer think of the non-transparent weakening of an already weak bill?

The STOCK Act only received 5 “nay” votes total between the House and the Senate when it passed in early 2012. Why did a bill that received overwhelming support now engender such an overwhelming response for its weakening? Why didn’t the co-author of the original bill, Senator Gillibrand, call for at least a legitimate vote on the weakening of her bill? Why did Congressman Duffy, who proposed a stronger piece of legislation, not reject such a bill?

It seems that the political forecast in Washington D.C. remains cloudy with little chance of sunlight and transparency.

Updated:President Obama has now signed this bill only further confirming that the “most transparent  administration” is nothing but.

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