President Obama yesterday signed legislation to curb some of the more blatant corruption on Capitol Hill, in a move that government reform advocates are welcoming as a significant, yet limited, victory.
The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act for the first time affirms that members of Congress and staff are not exempt from insider trading laws and mandates that lawmakers and certain government employees report some investments within 45 days of making the trade.
It also prohibits them from enjoying special access to initial public offerings and requires that they notify their ethics offices when negotiating for a private-sector job.
The version of the legislation passed by the Senate included an amendment that would have required insiders who collect political intelligence and sell it to corporate America to register under lobbying disclosure laws. It also contained the bipartisan Leahy-Cornyn amendment that would have given law enforcement certain tools to detect and prosecute public corruption and would have prevented public officials from accepting gifts given because of their government positions. It would have also provided for prosecution of public officials who accept private compensation.
But House Republicans stripped these provisions from their version of the bill. The Senate then passed the House’s bill, which is the version Obama then signed into law.
“The version of the STOCK Act signed today is only a shadow of the strong bill initially passed by the Senate,” said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in a statement yesterday. “Unfortunately, the House dropped the strongest provisions from the Senate-passed bill, which would have strengthened the ability of prosecutors to target public corruption.”
The legislation Obama signed yesterday goes a long way towards bringing the United States into compliance with the UN Convention against Corruption, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2006, but could have gone a lot further. As the Convention states:
Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest …
Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials …
However, the STOCK Act still doesn’t address one of the most important provisions against corruption, preventing the “revolving door” practices in Washington, in which corporate insiders go to work in the public sector regulating the companies they once ran, and then after their “public service,” end up back at those very same companies. This practice is prohibited under the Corruption Convention which calls on states parties to adopt legislation that
Prevent[s] conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.
The STOCK Act was first introduced in 2006, but Congress only moved on it following a “60 Minutes” report on congressional insider trading. The report documented that members of Congress bought stock in companies during debates on legislation that might affect the businesses. Studies have shown that congress members’ stock trades perform 6-12 percent better than the market average.
The adoption of the legislation also comes amid a mounting public outcry over government corruption, particularly in relation to corporate influence over government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the corporations that wield disproportionate power over those agencies.
In particular, opposition is growing in the U.S. and worldwide to the biotechnology giant Monsanto and its influence over public policy, including in Congress and the White House, as well as the FDA which is charged with regulating the company.
In a report on the growing worldwide resistance to Monsanto released yesterday, Via Campesina documents how handsomely Monsanto’s lobbying efforts and campaign contributions have paid off in the United States:
The US – which produces 45% of GM crops worldwide – has rewarded Monsanto’s White House lobbying efforts by promoting its seed technology both nationally and internationally.
Between January 1999 and June 2010, Monsanto spent over US$50 million on lobbying Congress and various government agencies,including on the regulation of GM crops, patent protection reforms and subsidies. …
According to the non-profit alliance of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the US government has been collaborating with Monsanto to secure agricultural export markets, removing barriers to the spread of GM crops, including into national wildlife refuges.
The report goes on to describe the intensifying efforts to roll back the company’s sway over public officials:
In one of the most recent battles to disrupt the US government’s relationship with Monsanto, environmentalists and lawyers launched an initiative to prevent Monsanto’s GM crops contaminating national wildlife refuges. ..
[L]egal battles led by PEER and the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) forced the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to end the planting of GM crops in 12 states.
In addition to legal battles, Americans have also taken to the streets against the biotech giant with direct action and street theater. Last month, members of the “Genetic Crimes Unit” of Occupy Monsanto took the case against Monsanto to the Expo West Natural Products trade show in Anaheim, Calif.:
Also last month, protesters shut down Monsanto’s Davis, Calif., offices for a day. According to the organizers, the objective of the protest was to bring local awareness to Monsanto’s control and involvement with toxins in food and water supplies and expose its ties to the government.
In New York, the Occupy Wall Street movement has continued to protest the nexus of finance and politics with a major Stock Exchange demonstration on March 30. Demonstrators marched through Manhattan and converged on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of the business day.
As Mark Bray of OWS stated, ”The closing bell of the stock exchange symbolizes the prioritization of economics over politics in our society, the fact that our politicians are more beholden to these institutions than to the people they are supposed to represent.”
Last week in Washington, demonstrators turned their attention to corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency, marching to its headquarters in what was called the largest protest ever against the agency. Calling for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to resign due to failure to treat employees fairly or adequately protect the environment, the Occupy EPA protesters also demanded increased nuclear regulation and an end to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas.
The EPA has carved out an exemption from the Clean Water Act for corporations like Halliburton to engage in fracking, having concluded that “the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells poses little or no threat” to drinking water, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Whistleblowers who have pointed to corporate influence over these policies have been aggressively pursued by the EPA, with some, such as Jon Grand, landing in prison.
Despite a 2002 law designed to protect government whistleblowers, demonstrators on Friday said that the EPA continues to discriminate against those who expose corruption within the agency.
The Friday demonstration was the first of a series of planned actions this spring dubbed the National Occupation of Washington D.C., or NOWDC. Other activities include a demonstration at the Department of Education and a protest of the Justice Department in support of U.S. prisoner of conscience Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of treason for providing embarrassing state secrets to WikiLeaks.
Click here for a full listing of actions this spring.