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Exposing Corruption and Preventing Abuse of Power

American Voters Say Corruption is a Concern; Congress Should Heed the Message

(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

Americans don’t agree on much in these polarized times, but one concern shared across the political spectrum is government corruption. Surveys show corruption ranks as a top concern for the public, and results from a survey sponsored by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) in the swing states of Michigan and Ohio are no exception. The message is clear: Congress needs to boost public trust in government.

And the best place for Congress to start is with itself. That’s why POGO is working with senators and congressional representatives to take bold action to clean up the legislative branch and build momentum for reforming the other two branches of government.

There’s no doubt that Congress has an ethics problem. Its members have undermined public confidence with stock trades and other activities that create the appearance of abusing their positions for private gain. The Justice Department prosecuted former Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) for insider trading he committed at the White House, and last year a court sentenced him to 26 months in prison before President Donald Trump pardoned him.

Stock trades by other members of Congress and their spouses drew public ire in recent years, though the Justice Department found no grounds for charges. The spouse of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) bought stock worth millions in Google’s parent company, Alphabet, shortly before the House of Representatives announced milder-than-expected action against big tech companies. Before the public knew the extent of the threat COVID-19 posed, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and former Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) collectively dumped millions of dollars’ worth of stock in companies likely to be affected by the pandemic. More recent reporting has raised questions as to whether Senator Burr shared nonpublic information with his brother-in-law, and whether his brother-in-law made trades based on that information. In one Senate term, former Senator David Perdue (R-GA) engaged in 2,596 trades, some involving companies potentially affected by the activities of committees on which he served. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) did not disclose his spouse’s February 26, 2020, purchase of drug manufacturer stock for over a year. Insider reported last month that, this year alone, 43 members of Congress — including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Susie Lee (D-NV), among others — failed to comply with disclosure requirements for stock trades.

These are only a few examples of a broader pattern of conduct that has undermined public confidence in Congress. Transformative change is overdue.

POGO has worked with several members of Congress who want to jump-start the process of turning things around. POGO has supported a bipartisan effort in the House, led by Representatives Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Chip Roy (R-TX), to combat insider trading by requiring members to create blind trusts for their assets. POGO agrees with an effort to bar members from trading stocks, sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and a bipartisan group ranging from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to Matt Gaetz (R-FL). POGO has supported an effort by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) to broaden the reach and scope of financial disclosure requirements and make it easier for the public to access disclosures.

Behind the scenes, POGO is working to build support for even more ambitious legislation that would require members of Congress and their spouses to divest a broad array of investments, place remaining assets in blind trusts, and make a host of new disclosures about their holdings. The logic here is simple: Members of Congress have access to nonpublic information and the power to affect the fortunes of companies. The public needs mechanisms to eliminate opportunities for insider trading and prevent members from making decisions that benefit their own financial interest at the expense of the public’s interest.

Congress can begin earning back public trust by eliminating individual conflicts of interest, preventing insider trading, and barring members from monetizing public service.

No one forced members of Congress to run for office, and no one will demand they divest or disclose their financial interests when and if they stop holding elected office. But while they hold office, they must use the power the public has granted them solely for the public’s benefit. It is not too much to ask them to demonstrate through disclosure and divestiture that they are living up to this responsibility.

The legislation we have in mind would include exceptions for diversified mutual funds and certain other investments that pose little or no potential for conflicts of interest, as well as things like interests in a spouse’s employer or multi-generational family trusts. The details of these exemptions can be negotiated, but what should not be negotiable is a commitment to managing conflicts of interest. The executive branch manages and enforces these kinds of ethics issues under a criminal conflict of interest law from which Congress exempted itself. Congress must follow that example and hold itself to similar or higher standards.

Walt Shaub, Senior Ethics Fellow at POGO, and Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, POGO's Government Affairs Manager, discuss all things relating to congressional ethics, including why it matters, what Congress should do about it, and what actions some members of Congress are already taking.

These aren’t the only reforms POGO is pursuing. Congress should consider requiring members to recuse from committee assignments affecting their personal interests. It should also bar them from holding outside positions with for-profit entities and receiving compensation for writing books, which creates opportunities for turning political contributions into personal income.

Enacting these reforms would be a step in the right direction. More needs to be done, including campaign finance reform. But Congress can begin earning back public trust by eliminating individual conflicts of interest, preventing insider trading, and barring members from monetizing public service. The public has registered its concern, and POGO will continue helping Congress find ways to rise to the challenge of addressing that concern.