Why Congress Can't Stop Stealing

Salary of rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress: $174,000.

Average annual Civil Service Retirement System benefits for retired members as of 2007: $63,696.

But the profits they can make by trading on inside information?

Priceless.

For years, we've railed against corruption in Washington. We've called out the congressmen who fired up printing presses to bail out AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , and their ilk -- then turned around and shorted the U.S. dollar in the sure knowledge it would fall. We've pointed fingers at the congressional staffers who, taking a cue from their bosses, invested in SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWR  ) and Energy Conversion Devices (Nasdaq: ENER  ) as they worked up legislation to subsidize the solar power industry. We've ranted. We've railed -- all to no avail.

But that's all about to change.

Democracy in action ... or democracy inaction
In multiple columns, on multiple occasions, The Motley Fool has urged readers, and voters, to contact their members of Congress and urge passage of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act. (That's right -- the "STOCK Act.") This law, if passed, would forbid anyone working on Capitol Hill from trading stocks based on information acquired from their involvement in the passage of laws.

A lot of you responded. In fact, at last count our petition through Change.org had tallied 1,821 signatures supporting passage of the STOCK Act. Unfortunately, 1,821 signatures plus nearly six months in which to consider the bill still hasn't added up to any movement on the bill. At last report, the STOCK Act remains stuck in the same committee that's ignored it since March. Chances are, it would have stayed there, too, but for the intrepid reporting team at 60 Minutes, which on Sunday shined new light on this scandal -- and embarrassed the heck out of some very powerful people in Washington.

You've got 60 Minutes to mend your ways
People like Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who according to 60 Minutes used the 2008 financial crisis as a means of inflating his personal piggybank by trading shares of General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) during the financial meltdown.

People like Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, whom I urged to take action on the STOCK Act when he took over as House speaker. Problem was, according to 60 Minutes, Boehner himself was buying shares of health insurance stocks at the same time his party was busy trying to water down Obamacare to minimize the restrictions on how these same health insurers conducted their business.

People like the woman who held the speaker's job before Boehner -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- who somehow managed to get a piece of the 2008 Visa (NYSE: V  ) IPO at its ultralow offering price. An IPO that I suspect a lot of us would have liked to get in on had only we known that the way to do that was to first get ourselves elected to Congress. (Visa's shares rocketed nearly 50% over the two days post-IPO, by the way, and have more than doubled since.)

In short, from the congressional rank-and-file like Bachus, all the way up through the very top echelons of House leadership (both of the last two speakers -- sheesh!), a lot of folks had vested interests in maintaining the status quo in Congress and ensuring that 1,821 (and counting?) citizen complaints against corruption in Congress went nowhere fast. I wonder if such blatant self-interest has anything to do with the astoundingly low level of the popularity of Congress today.

"I am not a crook!" -- Richard M. Nixon
If you live in the United States of America (and statistically speaking, if you're reading this article, you probably do), then chances are you're familiar with the theory that "all politicians are crooks." And I admit -- there's something to that. But here's the good news: As of this week, more than 10% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives are doing the right thing.

Now that this story has moved from the Web pages of one well-intentioned website and onto the mass market airwaves of CBS, it appears that Congress is finally taking notice ... of the fact that other people have noticed what they're up to. Nearly overnight, the number of co-sponsors of the STOCK Act has leapt from five (where it stood back in March) to 65 (where it stands as I write this).

It's not a majority, but it's a start. At long last, the movement has momentum. And I for one want to extend a hearty "thanks" to CBS for lending its mass media muscle to get the ball rolling.

What can you do to help keep the ball rolling? Two things:

  • First, shoot us a blank email to imoscovitz@fool.com to let us know that trading on inside knowledge of upcoming laws in Congress is not OK with you. We'll keep you updated on all the Fool's efforts to fight for reform on Wall Street and elsewhere in the legislato-financial complex.
  • And second, don't let the movement lose momentum. Add your voice to the petition urging Congress to get off its keister and pass the STOCK Act now!

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own (or short) shares of any company named above, but The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Citigroup, and Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Visa. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.


Read/Post Comments (39) | Recommend This Article (111)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 5:00 PM, theHedgehog wrote:

    Many Senators and Congressmen are responsive to their constituents' letters. Petitions are good, but don't forget to visit your legislators' websites and contact them directly; asking their position, or more pointedly, when they expect to become a sponsor of this legislation.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 5:54 PM, xetn wrote:

    Finally, someone that recognizes what the true nature of government is: legalized theft via taxation at the point of a gun. All politicians are crooks by nature and wish to live off their hosts; the citizens.

    The only things they are interested in is buying votes to keep stealing and taking money from the big corporations, banks and lobbyists, which is sort of selling protection.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 7:14 PM, thomas11118 wrote:

    Who are you kidding. The Banks and the global corporations own all of our politicians now. And, Wall street controls all of their stocks and bonds. We need to start enforcing anti trust laws again.

    Corporations no longer have to compete. They just dictate everything now.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 7:19 PM, thomas11118 wrote:

    Our country is being held hostage by global corporations who care very little about our country. They control our government and they cripple our Government at the same time. Our Government is under attack. The question is. How weak will they allow our Government to get?

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 7:26 PM, thomas11118 wrote:

    Global corporations are in love with cheap labor from countries where there are no human rights at all.....China.............They detest our government because people are free here. They prefer countries like Saudi Arabia and China where people are easier to control. Wall street is addicted to dictators and communists and arab oil. Think about it.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 7:29 PM, steven107 wrote:

    Wondering what the chance of getting this into a debate as a "question posted from the internet". Don't they take questions that are asked often. CNN has a post a question form for Nov 22, 2011, debate; but it is a national security debate it says. I think i'll post it anyway.There are more debates coming, we need to get this into the public eye, and having it asked at any debate between now and Nov 2012 would be good.

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2011, at 7:30 PM, thomas11118 wrote:

    Even stock holders,,,,,who are actually the true owners of corporations have no no power any more. They are at the mercy of those who run the Corporations and those who manage the mutual funds which invest in these firms. Government needs to regain control of this country and stock holders need to regain control of their assets.

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 12:23 AM, CBD1960 wrote:

    Re Congressional Pensions - The federal CSRS pension system you refer to terminated around 1987 - therefore there are very few Congressmen still serving eligible for that pension. As federal employees all congressmen fall under the federal pension system - and since 1987 that is called FERS. To vest one must be employed at least 5 years in the federal system - so one 2 year term in Congress does not entitle anyone to a federal pension. After that the amount of pension is determined by years of service/last 3 years salaries averaged/ times a factor/with minimum retirement ages. Since 1987 all Congressmen/federal employees are required to pay into the Social Security system. We deserve a better explanation from Motley Fool - and documentation on how you arrived at an average pension of $63,696.

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 2:06 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    @CBD1960: I did not arrive at the average pension amount. The Congressional Research Service did. As reported in the Washington Post earlier this year:

    "In 2007, — the most recent year for which numbers available — 435 retired Members of Congress received federal pensions. Of this number, 286 retired under the Civil Service Retirement System, a pension plan for federal employees who served prior to 1984, and received an average annual pension of $63,696. The remaining Congressmen retired under both CSRS or the Federal Employees' Retirement System, a newer pension plan, or under FERS only. In 2007, their average annual pension was $36,732."

    TMFDitty

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 2:07 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    @steven107: Excellent idea!

    TMFDitty

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 2:14 PM, OneLegged wrote:

    It might get passed, but the new and improved version that becomes law will have loopholes big enough to sail the Titanic through. CONgress passing a law to limit the profitability of being a CONgressman. HAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 3:54 PM, CaptainWidget wrote:

    And disgusting as I find the act of Congress-people using their powers to influence their own portfolio, pragmatically I realize it isn't going away. That's why these people got into politics, to get rich by stealing and manipulating.

    Passing more laws won't fix anything (it never does). They need their power stripped. The Supreme Court needs to clarify the "regulate" in the interstate commerce clause and verify it's original meaning.......to simply make sure it exists; not to restrict, limit, nor define it.

    Once Congress loses it's power to pass bills restricting free trade, away goes it's insider information. The only information they have is which companies they're about to destroy and which they're about to subsidize. If they're unable to do either, it's back on a level playing field.

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 4:43 PM, primetime1955 wrote:

    When, oh when will we truly get MAD AS HELL and I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE?!?!?!

    Laws need to change-NOW!!! Congress need to go to jail and get ruined if they break the laws-PERIOD!!!

    Wake up and vow to vote ALL incumbents out-on a local, state, and federal level-high time to start over and do it right!!!

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 8:16 PM, Merton123 wrote:

    Passing more and more laws is not going to change anything. The MF Global breakdown was not avoided by more stringent regulations. Congress has been exempted from many laws that the rest of the country has to follow for centuries. The solution is "Values" not necessarily passing new laws. There are many laws on the books in South America but the community as a whole don't have values.

    Our society/community had some very strong values which have been watered down after the 1960s. Today we have over 50% of the children being raised in single parent households. The churches have not updated their teachings for the 21st century. How many people today believe that there is someone with a white beard watching over all of us? Can we blame anyone who then decides to skip church on Sunday? There are not enough policemen to enforce the laws if the community as a whole has lost its moral compass in my opinion.

  • Report this Comment On November 19, 2011, at 10:32 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    @primetime1955: I second the emotion, but remember -- what the Congressmen are doing is not against the law, because it does not technically constitute insider trading. That's the point. We need a law passed to *make* this illegal.

    TMFDitty

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 2:14 AM, mhonarvar wrote:

    @Merton123

    There are a lot of pre-1960 "values" that should stay pre-1960. I think there are atleast a few obvious ones.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 7:00 AM, xferjenx wrote:

    Petition signed...but I agree with one other poster that once passed, it will have major loopholes in it allowing Congress to skirt it...

    As other posters have also said, the corporations have their fingerprints all over Congress. But why would anyone expect anything different? The corporations are looking out for their own self interests and as a shareholder, that is my interest since they have a fiduciary responsibility to me.

    Likewise, my Congresspeople have a responsibility to serve us, not themselves. They have an obligation to say "no" to the corporations if not in the best interest of the electorate and to preserve our trust. It is shameful that we must pass this law in the first place...

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 7:06 AM, billjam wrote:

    Were it not so serious I would have laughed at Eric Cantor's response to the insider trading issue. Cantor said it shouldn't be banned but they should disclose their trading activity. IOW, it's okay for us to be crooks so long as we admit we are crooks.

    No, Eric, you should go to jail like every other citizen!

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 8:58 AM, dmjst11 wrote:

    If they would only follow your constitution this would not be happening

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 11:05 AM, MaryWilbur wrote:

    I'm beginning to feel sorry for Raj Rajaratnam who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for insider trading. He is a victim of the double standard of justice in this country, which I'm beginning to hate, one standard of complete freedom for politicians from the rule of law, and then the rest of us serfs to the political class -- the real 1%. BTW I don't think it should be forgotten that Rahm Emmanuel dumped $250,000 worth of Freddie Mac stock just days before it went bankrupt. He was a congressman at the time but it is quite possible that he bought the stock when he was on Freddie Mac's board.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 12:04 PM, TMFTomGardner wrote:

    It is important to sign that petition. It is even more important to raise your voice on this issue. Over the years, The Motley Fool has forced change at companies and amongst regulators. This comes from an academic paper on Regulation Full Disclosure:

    "The former SEC chairman who introduced Reg FD, Arthur Levitt, noted that “two thirds of our letters [in favor of Reg FD] came from Fools,” subscribers to the Motley Fool, a popular website for individual investors, and that “without them, Reg FD would not have happened.”

    So, we can force this change together. But we need to build momentum together.

    Tom Gardner

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 12:20 PM, rando101 wrote:

    FRom The SEC Website

    Insider Trading

    "Insider trading" is a term that most investors have heard and usually associate with illegal conduct. But the term actually includes both legal and illegal conduct. The legal version is when corporate insiders—officers, directors, and employees—buy and sell stock in their own companies. When corporate insiders trade in their own securities, they must report their trades to the SEC.

    Illegal insider trading refers generally to buying or selling a security, in breach of a fiduciary duty or other relationship of trust and confidence, while in possession of material, nonpublic information about the security. Insider trading violations may also include "tipping" such information, securities trading by the person "tipped," and securities trading by those who misappropriate such information.

    Examples of insider trading cases that have been brought by the SEC are cases against:

    Corporate officers, directors, and employees who traded the corporation's securities after learning of significant, confidential corporate developments;

    Friends, business associates, family members, and other "tippees" of such officers, directors, and employees, who traded the securities after receiving such information;

    Employees of law, banking, brokerage and printing firms who were given such information to provide services to the corporation whose securities they traded;

    Government employees who learned of such information because of their employment by the government; and

    Other persons who misappropriated, and took advantage of, confidential information from their employers.

    Because insider trading undermines investor confidence in the fairness and integrity of the securities markets, the SEC has treated the detection and prosecution of insider trading violations as one of its enforcement priorities.

    The question becomes Does Congress have a fiduciary duty or other relationship of trust and confidence, while in possession of material, nonpublic information about the security?

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 1:05 PM, FosterDad wrote:

    This is a very good overview of why our Congress needs to be cleaned up. We really need honest, trustworthy people representing us and not just their personal interests. So many of them seem to have an opinion that whatever they do or say is fine and we should just shut up. I'm not sure what really is at the bottom of all of this, but it has to stop now.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 1:24 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    @rando101: You've hit the nail on the head. Congrats.

    TMFDitty

    P.S. There are also corollary questions of to whom is the duty owed, and whether anything done by the People's representatives is de jure public information. Passing the STOCK Act would help to clear this up.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 1:36 PM, mjfoysr11 wrote:

    Power corrupts, The longer one is exposed to having power the more corrution, relative to the power level, there will be. So abosolute power will corrupt absolutely.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 3:58 PM, Merton123 wrote:

    Does insider trading make the markets more efficient by allowing information to more rapidly be assimilated into the markets? Does the inside trading rules make the markets less "efficient" by forcing traders to wait or not act upon what they consider to be sound information? I agree that the members of the board of directors should be required to disclose the inside information prior to trading. However, after that one exception, why don't we allow everybody to trade based on rumors, tips and so-forth. Isn't that what is already occurring?

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 6:16 PM, CaptainWidget wrote:

    <<Does insider trading make the markets more efficient by allowing information to more rapidly be assimilated into the markets? >>

    Absolutely. This is an oft forgotten point, but if some insider with a 11 million shares of a company I own has info that the price is going to go down, I want him out as quickly as possible so I can read the signal and hopefully get out too.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 6:25 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    Hence the (I think) modest compromise that we've proposed: Congressmen and their staffers should be permitted to trade freely ... after disclosing their intent to trade ahead of time.

    This is how the Fool's several newsletters operate, and it doesn't prevent us from outperforming the market. Shouldn't be too much of an imposition to require Congress to operate on a similar procedure.

    TMFDitty

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 9:58 PM, jeb921 wrote:

    Rich.

    1.according to the arthur and 60 minutes Paulson "may" have told me ge was in trouble.

    2. They say this would be inside info if true.

    3. The Arthur said I shorted GE the next day.

    My disclosure clearly shows I bought GE

    Although a less intelligent person would accuse me of being confused, anyone who read my disclosure or the book knows otherwise.

    I don't care to get in a debate with you or fellow motley fool readers (yes I'm a motley subscriber) but I do invite you to read "the book" . When you do I'll be curious to know if you agree with the book that Steve jobs and the Chinese people's party tipped me off (more insider info?) about what the book calls my risky and profitable investments in focus media and apple in 2007. Spencer. Yes as in bachus

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2011, at 10:08 PM, jeb921 wrote:

    Spell check changed author to arthur but otherwise you get the point Spencer

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2011, at 6:40 AM, jargonific wrote:

    Totally disagree on Sun Power. It looked great. Then Total oil bought it. The oil industry and Chinese interests have become dominant in the alt energy field. THAT is what Congress did wrong. The problem is more complex in that the agencies set up to regulate trade and commerce have utterly failed too.

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2011, at 6:53 AM, jargonific wrote:

    Keep it real. This is on behalf of investors and corporations. They are pepper spraying 80 year olds like Dorli Rainey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xwo5eumXxyA

    They also pepper sprayed a row of kids at a campus over the weekend. Spraying them again and again and again back and forth in their small line, as if they were bugs not people. This horror should result in both a ban on this product Mace or Pepper Spray plus a ban on those members of the force who used it in this shocking and criminal way. Who gave orders here? Tragic.

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2011, at 7:59 AM, hansgruelerlives wrote:

    Theres a fair rash action against the stealing, just depict those stolen from whom roused no attention thanks to the baddness of the instigator, politician in America are somewhat able to activate the public better than elsewhere.

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2011, at 10:43 AM, cattywampus wrote:

    What percentage of our congress and their corporate cronies are shorting the market right now with their insider information, I wonder?

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2011, at 12:15 PM, tfprune wrote:

    Please remember to point out who has ultimate responsibility: the voters. Why do the hoi polloi continue to vote for Democrats and Republicans? This is where the root of the problem lies: not only in the liars themselves, but in the people who choose to believe those lies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    I continue to vote against both major parties at every opportunity. Neither has the internal or external ethics to represent my interests.

    We don't actually need this law. What we need is voters with the integrity to elect people with ethics -- starting with freezing out the two ethically failed parties.

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2011, at 1:21 PM, ravenesque wrote:
  • Report this Comment On November 22, 2011, at 12:17 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    "Wake up and vow to vote ALL incumbents out-on a local, state, and federal level-high time to start over and do it right!!!"

    This won't work. Replacing every politician in Washington wouldn't change a thing because they'll simply get bought out again. Track the problem to the source.

    Even electing people with ethics isn't enough - take Russ Feingold. He refused to take money from PACs and lobbyists and refused to be bought, so they poured money into his Republican opponent's campaign and now he's out of the Senate.

  • Report this Comment On November 22, 2011, at 1:58 PM, ETFsRule wrote:

    It seems like a stretch to mention Pelosi here, unless there is evidence that she somehow took advantage of her congressional position when she invested in Visa.

    But, I agree with the spirit of the article - no one should be able to trade based on information that is not publicly available.

  • Report this Comment On December 12, 2011, at 10:12 AM, thidmark wrote:

    Our founding fathers would vomit at the current state of our government.

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