In Focus

US politicians and the stock market: are they guilty of insider trading?

Legislators are pushing for members of Congress to be banned from trading in individual stocks

Ever wondered why regular Americans hold their leaders in such low esteem? It’s partly because they suspect them of playing the system, said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – and who can blame them when you see how politicians speculate on the stock market.

In January 2020, the public had no idea of the impact Covid was about to have, but many members of Congress did, because they were getting classified briefings from experts. In the wake of those briefings, then senator Kelly Loeffler sold off millions in stocks, and invested in a teleconferencing firm. Senator Richard Burr sold his hotel holdings. Senator Rand Paul’s wife bought stock in a pharma company making antivirals.

Whether these were “just happy coincidences or something more sinister”, they looked very dodgy. Some legislators are rightly now pushing for members of Congress to be banned from trading in individual stocks.

The proposed legislation “comes not a moment too soon”, said Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post. The problem is not just that lawmakers can unfairly enrich themselves; it’s that they’re open to glaring conflicts of interest. How can Congress be trusted to dispassionately regulate Big Tech, or the drug giants, when so many of its members have a financial stake in these firms?

To see how it can cloud their judgement, just look at the way Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially tried to resist reform: “We are a free-market economy,” she said. Members of Congress “should be able to participate in that.” This, of course, is the same Nancy Pelosi who, with her venture capitalist husband, has done so well from trading that “there’s an entire community on TikTok” that follows her portfolio – calling her the “queen of investing”.

The proposal is that members of Congress should put their assets in blind trusts while serving, said Theo Wayt in the New York Post. That would help restore public confidence. And for some Democrats it would have “an added bonus: revenge on Senator Joe Manchin”. They’re furious with their colleague for blocking President Biden’s $2tn Build Back Better Act, which would have allocated tens of billions of dollars to fight climate change. If a new law forces Manchin to give up control of his stake in a coal company, they’ll be happy.

It’s “amazing” that we’re even debating this reform, said Robert Reich on CommonDreams.org. It’s a “no-brainer. Let’s get it done.”

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