Politics & Other Mistakes: An outsider’s guide to insider trading

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Is it nature or nurture? Are members of Congress born with a gene that makes them obnoxious, or do they learn how to be reprehensible through correspondence courses?

There’s no easy answer to these questions. All we can say for sure is that within a few short months of their arrival in Washington, nearly every senator and representative begins to display the sort of repulsive behaviors most commonly associated with professional athletes, eastern European dictators, and rabid animals.

Al DiamonThis is particularly true when it comes to their personal finances.

Nearly everyone in Congress is rich. But anyone impudent enough to question how they got that way should be prepared for a response ranging from icy to openly hostile. And those seeking to place restraints on Congress’ ability to use high public offices to increase its members’ personal wealth will likely be greeted with a reception that resembles Russian troop movements to the Ukrainian border.

At first glance, it seems ludicrous that our elected officials would object to reasonable limits on their money-grubbing ways. Most of them have plenty of money, at least when compared to normal people.

According to the OpenSecrets website, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King has an estimated net worth of about $9.5 million, with significant investments in manufacturing, lodging, financial institutions, health care, agriculture, and tax-exempt state bonds.

The same source places Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins at just over $4 million, with her money sunk in communications, electronics, pharmaceuticals, finance, energy, and defense stocks. That doesn’t include significant stock ownership by her wealthy husband.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree used to invest in financial institutions and businesses, but now says she owns no stocks. Her principal source of wealth is her inn on North Haven. Still, she’s managed to keep her net worth in the $10 million range.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden has no stock portfolio or much of anything else. Open Secrets estimates his net worth at less than $100,000.

So, how does our congressional delegation feel about bills currently circulating on Capitol Hill that would ban members from buying or selling stocks while they’re in office? Those with inherently suspicious natures might notice the uncanny correlation between stock ownership and opposition to that idea.

A spokesperson for Collins told the Bangor Daily News that a 2012 law she supported provides “appropriate safeguards” to prevent insider trading. That measure prohibits members from using privileged information to buy or sell stocks. It also requires them to report all stock transactions within 45 days.

According to The New York Times, there have been exactly zero cases brought against members of Congress, even though there have been numerous reported cases of senators and representatives making unusually savvy transactions just before news broke that had a sizable impact on stocks they bought or sold. As for disclosures, the Times reported that requirement is routinely ignored, but no fines have ever been imposed.

King isn’t exactly opposed to having his trading options limited, but he isn’t exactly in favor, either. Through his mouthpiece, he told the Bangor paper he wanted to “take every possible step to uphold the immense faith the American public has placed” in Congress.

At last report, the American public had more faith in UFOs being from outer space than in our lawmakers. Perhaps as a result of that anomaly, King’s flack did say he was “examining opportunities to strengthen that trust.”

Pingree and Golden, both non-stock owners, support a ban on dabbling in the market by members of Congress. But their chances of voting on such a measure are slim since Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said she thought the “free market” provided sufficient protection against legislators engaging in the sort of insider trading so common on Wall Street. After loads of negative feedback, Pelosi, who owns lots of stocks, hinted she might allow a vote.

All of which brings us back to the question that began this column: Were Pelosi, Collins, and King born with a warped sense of morality, or did they pick up those germs in a Capitol Hill restroom?

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