BUSINESS INSIDER, BRYAN METZGER
Banning members of Congress from trading individual stocks is incredibly popular among average Americans. Democrats and Republicans alike have introduced bills to do just that. Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who lead the Democrat-controlled Congress, have signaled varying degrees of support.
So why hasn’t anything been done?
It depends who you ask.
“I think that they’re trying to run out the clock,” said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who’s sponsored one of the several stock-ban bills now pending in Congress.
While Spanberger avoids naming Pelosi directly, she insists that the effort is “100%” being stonewalled by “anyone who has the ability to move it forward,” and that proponents could eventually move to force a floor vote regardless of whether leadership likes it.
In the US Senate, the group of Democrats working to hammer out a compromise bill say they’ve largely reached agreement on the fundamentals of a congressional stock-ban bill. But talks are ongoing, and impatience is growing.
“We can keep trying to build consensus, or we can put a bill on the floor,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia, who’s put forward the Senate version of Spanberger’s bill. “Those are our choices.”
Agitation among some proponents of stock-ban legislation is just the latest result of the broader dynamics at play in Congress. Among them:
- The 50-50 Senate is a legislative minefield, floor time is a rare commodity, and bills that could divide the Democratic caucus are often non-starters.
- In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lack of enthusiasm for a stock-trade ban could imperil an idea that’s otherwise popular.
- This is an area of legislation that is genuinely complicated, both politically and technically, particularly given that Congress is being asked to limit its own members’ personal activities.
A committee-driven process in the House
Following a congressional hearing on stock trading in early April, a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to the Committee on House Administration asking for a markup of “strong legislation to ban members of Congress from directly owning or trading stocks while in office.”
Spanberger told Insider she met in late April with Committee Chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. They talked through Spanberger’s bill and some of the issues raised during the hearing.
“Nothing came out of that meeting,” Spanberger said.
But Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington — the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and proponent of a separate bill to ban congressional stock trading — remains confident.
She told Insider that Pelosi indicated to her in a recent caucus chairs meeting that the committee had been preoccupied with legislation allowing House staffers to unionize, and that was “part of the hold up.”
“She seemed like she was still very supportive of it moving forward,” Jayapal said. “A lot of us are pushing very hard.”
While Pelosi has publicly expressed openness to a ban — “if members want to do that, I’m okay with that,” she told reporters in January — both her initial reluctance to the idea and her husband’s frequent, high-volume stock trades have fed suspicion that she’s not actually interested in addressing the issue.
“You take the statements that people make, and you know, you continue to push,” Jayapal said. “She told me she was supportive, so I’m going to take her at her word.”
Support among lawmakers for banning congressional stock trading is genuinely bipartisan. Roughly a dozen Republicans have signed onto Spanberger’s bill, including Rep. Chip Roy of Texas — one of the House’s most conservative members. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy floated a stock ban earlier this year. And Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ben Sasse of Nebraska have introduced their own bills.
But Republicans at the Committee on House Administration hearing largely panned the idea during the hearing.
Peter Whippy, a spokesperson for the Committee on House Administration, told Insider that the panel is “continuing its work to diligently build a complete and detailed legislative record necessary to support substantial changes to the law and current disclosure regime.”
“Upon completing its ongoing review, the Committee will introduce a legislative framework recommending reforms to improve transparency and accountability, and to engender greater public trust in Congress and our federal public officials,” Whippy said.
Consensus-building in the Senate
In the upper chamber, Schumer has tasked a group of Democrats with crafting a proposal that can garner the support of his caucus, while also enticing enough Republicans to clear a filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold.
“We hope to have legislation and vote on it this year,” Schumer told reporters at a weekly press conference earlier this month.
Little doubt exists about Schumer’s desire to pass a congressional stock-trade ban; financial disclosures indicate that he and his wife hold no individual stocks. But the need for consensus-building and the attention demanded by other political crises has slowed an effort that seemed to have serious, bipartisan momentum just months ago.
Among them: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a still-unfulfilled request from the Biden administration for more COVID aid funding, the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade, a baby formula shortage, and most recently, mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, that together left more than 30 people dead.
And with a 50-50 Senate majority that Schumer often can’t control, he must be assured that a bill to ban lawmakers from trading stocks actually has the support of enough of his caucus. In order to hammer out a compromise bill, members of the Democratic working group have been meeting regularly since early February.
“For us to get this to the floor, we essentially have to have a vision that virtually every person can sign on to,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a member of the working group and a long-time proponent of a stock trading ban. “Leaders are always reluctant to put bills on the floor that create deep divisions in their caucus.”
Merkley told Insider that he’s been engaging in “intense personal diplomacy” with members of the Democratic caucus and the Senate more broadly, which he says is the most engagement he’s ever had on this issue.
“Every single day, I’m spending hours a day immersed on this topic, trying to bring people together,” he said.
But there’s also a sense among stock-ban proponents in the Senate that the working group meetings appear to be going in circles.
“The movement is not happening in those meetings,” Merkley conceded, saying that the movement “is happening in all of the one-on-one meetings I’ve been holding” with members of the caucus whose votes will be necessary to get a final bill across the finish line.
Merkley also told Insider that the working group has achieved consensus on the need to include spouses in a stock trading ban, but says he’s still selling it to other senators.
“I can tell you that there are members who have had very difficult conversations with spouses regarding this,” he said. “So that is not an issue to be treated lightly.”
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has introduced the most expansive version of a stock trading ban, told Insider that she was “cautiously optimistic” about getting something done given the “widespread agreement” among Democrats on the need to put a ban in place.
“There are just a lot of fairly detailed questions that need to be answered,” she told Insider.
And though two Republican senators have put forward their own bills to ban lawmakers from trading stocks and three Republican senators are co-sponsoring Warren’s bill, the conversations at this point are largely taking place among Democrats.
Just one month ago, Warren named a stock trading ban as a top priority for Democrats to pass in order to avoid “disaster” in the upcoming midterms elections. And before that, Merkley had set something of a two-week deadline for generating consensus on the idea.
But despite that deadline having long passed, he insisted that the only real deadline is “the date in January of next year when we transition to a new Congress.”
“We couldn’t get there during that time period,” Merkley said. “If we can get there, suddenly this will be a contender to be a bill offered on the floor.”
An issue that’s unlikely to go away
With the 2022 midterm elections just over 5 months away, time is quickly running out for normal legislative action, particularly on an issue as thorny and potentially complicated as changing stock ownership rules for members of Congress.
The House in particular has just 9 weeks of votes left before November, with large gaps during the summer and autumn to allow members to campaign. On Tuesday, 16 different advocacy groups sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to get involved,
But there’s evidence to suggest that heightened scrutiny could lead to a general change in behavior in Congress — Assistant House Speaker Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, a potential successor to Pelosi — has quietly stopped trading individual stocks.
Meanwhile, candidates on both the left and the right have made a commitment to abstain from trading individual stocks into an issue on the campaign trail.
Those campaign-trail commitments could then turn into votes for a stock trading ban down the line, whether it’s under a Democratic- or Republican-controlled Congress.