President Barack Obama recently chipped away at legislation that he himself publicly endorsed just one year ago. The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act, aimed to prevent insider trading among members of Congress by requiring them to disclose financial trades made using information obtained through their position. The information was then available online to the public. Under the new provisions, such information would be available exclusively via in-person request in Washington. The modification of the STOCK Act represents a huge step backward for transparency in Congress.
When Obama passed the STOCK Act a year ago, the measure was met with widespread and bipartisan support. The bill was largely a response to a “60 Minutes” piece that detailed the protections members of Congress have when it comes to insider trading. The STOCK Act sought not only to curb insider trading, but also to make the financial activities of members of Congress available to the public.
While the first version of the bill was passed easily, the modifications amazingly took even less effort. The House and Senate approved the new measures unanimously. In contrast to the highly publicized affair that took place when the president signed the STOCK Act last year, the new modifications were announced quietly via a one-sentence press release.
One major provision of the STOCK Act that is still intact is insider trading being illegal for members of Congress and the executive branch. Unfortunately, it is now nearly impossible for inquiring minds to hold politicians accountable for their financial activities. If anything, the new provisions encourage watchdog groups such as Anonymous to hack into the database holding this information.
The motivations for scaling back the legislation are largely due to privacy concerns. According to president of the Senior Executives Association Carol Bonosaro, “There were particular concerns about risks for those who either travel overseas on government business or work overseas.” Still, the new measures for the STOCK Act go too far. Under the new provisions, politicians are expected to enforce the anti-insider trading laws themselves. This gives our elected officials too much autonomy. At the risk of sounding cynical, we cannot trust politicians not to take advantage of the sensitive information available to them.
For all of Obama’s successes in office, transparency certainly has not been one of them. Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, the president wrote in a memo, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Yet, the Obama administration’s continued clandestine drone strikes and the revised STOCK Act certainly suggest otherwise. The White House has also released fewer records under the Freedom of Information Act than did President George W. Bush’s administration.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Obama administration’s lack of transparency is how silent the media is with regards to this issue. Restricting access to pertinent information cannot become something that is widely accepted and expected of the government. Unfortunately, if the past few years are any indication that just may be the path we are headed down.