It may sound quaint, even naive. But members of Congress are in Washington to serve their country and the people of their district, not to enrich themselves or their families through the information they gain from their positions of power and privilege.

So, no, senators and representatives should not be allowed to trade individual stocks while in office. Just the appearance of such a conflict is enough reason to stop the practice.

In this case, appearance matters a lot. If constituents can’t tell whether a lawmaker’s vote comes from their heart or because of how it will affect their finances, then trust in Congress as an institution – and in our republic itself – will continue to fall.

Too many members already are playing fast and loose with the public’s trust. A recent investigation by Insider found 54 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who failed to report stock trades as required by the STOCK Act, passed a decade ago.

There was not necessarily anything suspect with the trades. But it is clear from the poor excuses given by members that they don’t take the law seriously – in no small part because enforcement is lax and penalties are toothless.

Not only does that cut away at whatever trust Americans have in Congress, it also opens the way for more corrupt actions. Sen. Richard Burr, in one example, is under investigation by the Justice Department for stock trades he and a relative made in February 2020, after the senator received confidential briefings on the COVID virus.

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Several other members were investigated for profiting off trades related to COVID as well, but the Justice Department declined to pursue charges against any of them.

Maybe those cases are hard to prove; maybe the Justice Department has little appetite for them. In any case, the current law is not doing enough.

In order to remove all temptation, doubt and charges of conflict of interest, Congress should instead pass an outright ban on the trading of individual stocks, at very least by members themselves. A number of bills on the issue have been put forward. Now the specifics – who the ban should extend to and what options members should have for their investments – need to be worked out.

The effort has made for a strange coalition. Democratic Maine U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree, a progressive, and Jared Golden, a moderate, both support it, as do Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other far-right members.

Independent Sen. Angus King said he is reviewing the legislation. Republican Sen. Susan Collins is against it, arguing for better enforcement of current laws.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agrees. She said members of Congress should be free to participate in the “free market economy.

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But it’s not a free market when some of the players have information no one else does only because of their elected position.

And it does Congress and our country no good when, say, a high-ranking member’s spouse pockets $5 million on tech stock options right before a major congressional hearing on the industry.

There is no evidence that Pelosi or her husband did anything wrong regarding this trade. But it hardly inspires confidence.

Pelosi says that the public reporting requirements in the STOCK Act are enough. “The speaker believes that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” a Pelosi spokesman said.

Usually, that’s correct. But in this case, members of Congress have shown they have no problem when their conflicts of interest, and worse, are right out in the open.

In this case, we need more than transparency. We need an outright ban.


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