On April 4, 2012, seven months before the Presidential election, Barack Obama signed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act into law, barring insider trading on non-public information by Members of Congress and other government employees. Members trying to curry favor with their constituents almost unanimously supported it in Congress. Logically, it was the right thing to do, especially after an explosive “60 Minutes” piece a few months before that exposed insider trading on the Hill.
Obama said, “It's the notion that the powerful shouldn't get to create one set of rules for themselves and another set of rules for everybody else.... If we expect that to apply to our biggest corporations and our most successful citizens, it certainly should apply to our elected officials. Congress should do even more to help fight the destructive influence of money in politics and rebuild the trust between Washington and the American people.”
But despite their public statements and their “aye” votes, Congress didn’t like it. They spent the next year delaying implementation and “temporarily” amending provisions. Supposedly, their heartburn was over the fact that the Act requires them to post their financial information and communications online, and they said this would jeopardize their safety and also discourage others from entering public service.
That is why it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that a little over a week ago, Senator Harry Reid introduced S.716, which:
“Eliminates the requirement in the STOCK Act to make available on official websites the financial disclosure forms of employees of the executive and legislative branches other than the President, the Vice President, Members of and candidates for Congress, and several specified Presidentially nominated and Senate-confirmed officers; and delays until January 1, 2014, the date by which systems must be developed that enable public access to financial disclosure forms of covered individuals.”
Congressional aides and executive branch staffers are exempt from the online database, and the President, Vice President and Members of Congress do not have to provide sortable or searchable information. A little at a time, Congress is chipping away at their promise of transparency and accountability.
S.716 was considered in the Senate for about ten seconds and passed unanimously. On Monday, April 15th, Obama quietly signed it.
No wonder everyone is fed up with Congress. As the government takes away our right to privacy, it tightens theirs. As they push for more of our online activities to become public and easily accessible to government and law enforcement, they block transparency into their activities.
We can still find out financial information on our leaders, but it is going to be more difficult. To add to the frustration, the Obama administration is the worst at blocking requests under the Freedom of Information Act, so we should expect to be met with resistance.
Congressional cronyism can also continue, as for example in the case of Mike Rogers (R-MI) pushing the CISPA bill through while his wife holds a job at a company that will benefit greatly from its passage. The fox is guarding the henhouse. Congress is out of control.
If we don’t know what they are up to, we cannot hold them to integrity.
Lisa Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation points out that, “Security through obscurity as a justification to repeal the transparency provisions of the STOCK Act starts us down a slippery slope where any government action or information could be taken offline in the name of safety.”
And, to point, just as information can be taken OFFLINE in the name of safety and national security, so can information be put ONLINE—our information, belonging to the American people—and it can be put in searchable databases, used without a warrant, and accessible at any time for government agencies and law enforcement.
As we put pressure on Congress to uphold our Constitution and as we fight for and against legislation, we must also insist upon a transparent and ethical government. If those in office are unwilling to govern openly, or if they are unwilling to defend our system of checks and balances, they must go. And they must be put on notice right now that we, the People, are going to hold them to account.
Sadly, it takes a bad Act of Congress to eliminate a good Act … and, of course, vice versa. As the wheels spin out of control in Washington, our representatives need to realize that we are watching. The political grandstanding that means nothing must stop, now.