Flynn's Harp: Baird's long ethics quest goes national (11-22-11)
Posted on 11/24/2011 by Mike Flynn
Former Washington Congressman Brian Baird’s long quest to bring a small note of integrity to the dysfunctional legislative body from which he retired a year ago has finally, with a 60 Minutes episode titled “Honest Graft,” gotten a bit of national visibility for an idea whose time has long since come.
And it’s possible that, as irate citizens across the country seek ways to express their frustration at the implications of the abject failure of the so-called supercommittee to come up with any agreement, Baird’s idea may become a focal point for citizen action.
During the last three of his six terms representing the state’s 3rd District, Democrat Baird sought unsuccessfully to pass, or even just gather support for, what he called the Stock Act. It would have barred members of Congress from doing stock transactions in areas they regulate, in essence, prohibiting their investing in a manner that those in the real world call Insider Trading.
In a real world, Baird’s proposal would be a laughable “well, of course.” But in a place whose mantra is “the rules we make for you don’t apply to us,” seeking to force action by the lawmakers on one small, self-imposed ethical constraint could become a rallying point for a fed-up public.
The thrust of the CBS segment that aired last week is that lawmakers often do make stock purchases and trades in the very fields they regulate. While ordinary citizens could be jailed for engaging in the kind of investment shenanigans that those in Congress involve themselves in, there’s not even an ethical concern among lawmakers.
Baird may be able to gain far more visibility as a former lawmaker than he could as a member of Congress and the hope has to be that this first shot across the bow of Congress will echo down the months of the coming election year.
And a sure way to take this worthwhile campaign viral is to share in every possible social-media fashion 60 Minutes reporter Steve Croft’s questioning of current House Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi at their respective news conferences.
For viewers of the ineptitude with which both Boehner and Pelosi tried to answer Croft’s questions about whether their investment practices were at least conflicts of interest, the thought that had to occur was “Who elects these people?” The answer, unfortunately, is people like us elect them. Shame on us.
Boehner, for example, bought a bunch of health-care-related stock during the health-care reform debate of 2009. And when Boehner's efforts to kill the so called "public option" succeeded, those stocks skyrocketed.
Pelosi, meanwhile, had gotten in on a series of lucrative stock Initial Public Offerings. One of those involved an enormous number of Visa shares that Pelosi purchased while she was working on legislation that would have hurt credit card companies. Two days after purchasing the stock at $44 a share, and after the bill was put on long-term hold, Pelosi's stock shot up to $64 a share.
Ideally, members of Congress will be pressed, in any news conference or appearance before business organizations or other groups in the coming election season, to explain why they fail to support the legislative concept for which Baird sought support in Congress.
Fortunately, Pelosi’s struggles with the simple task of answering a question from the 60 Minutes reporter have become pervasive on YouTube, and should remain so down through election year as a backdrop to those questions posed to members of Congress seeking to stay in office. It should be watched by millions, and shared with millions more.
At a time when we’re already dealing with “pledges” from candidates for political office, a much more logical pledge to press upon candidates than a no-taxes pact is: “Will you support Stock Act legislation in the next session of Congress?”
And no candidate forsaking Congress for a run for state office should escape being forced to explain to their hoped-for statewide constituency why they lacked an interest in imposing integrity at the most basic level on their fellow lawmakers and themselves by supporting Baird’s efforts.
Baird’s 3rd District successor, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, announced earlier this month that she is signing on as a co-sponsor if a bill similar to Baird’s plan, this one called “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act,” sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Timothy Welz.
A total of 92 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, including Washington Democrats Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott, though not Inslee.
But those wise in the way Congress works, or more accurately doesn’t, will note that the bill was assigned by House Leadership to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, rather than one that has anything to do with ethics, finances or investments.
Howard Schultz’ quixotic appeal to CEOs to spurn campaign donations to re-election campaigns of members of Congress because of their inability to progress beyond stalemate is a bit impractical because only candidates that CEO types contribute to would be impacted. Candidates supported by groups like unions and trial attorneys would actually benefit if Schultz’ call drew CEO response.
But a call for denying donations to any member of Congress who doesn’t pledge to support the specific legislation that Baird long championed might have a whole different outcome in terms of response from those seeking to remain in Congress. And since the demand for such a pledge would be coming from Democrat and Republican voters alike, it might be the seed that could grow into a renewed sense that there are things that those from all parts of the political spectrum can actually upon.
And it would thus represent a small step toward acceptability for a legislative body that badly needs to be viewed by the American public as not just trustworthy, but simply relevant.