Wall Street tycoon Raj Rajaratnam was sentenced last month to 11 years in federal prison in addition to paying a hefty $93 million fine for his role in a massive insider-trading scam. Too bad for him the disgraced mogul wasn't a member of the U.S. Congress, where the same behavior on the part of our elected officials is systemic, profitable and perfectly legal. But this tawdry Washington gravy train may finally come to an end. Little wonder Congress' public approval numbers have plummeted.
For decades, journalists, political activists and a handful of elected officials have tried and repeatedly failed to expose and reform a long-standing history of institutional corruption in Washington that permits officeholders to get in on the ground floor of lucrative investment opportunities based on knowledge obtained through their positions overseeing or regulating industries.
The latest installment in this righteous campaign was an embarrassing CBS News 60 Minutes story that exposed questionable investments made by former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, current Republican Speaker John Boehner and other members of both parties in Congress who invested with companies whose bottom lines were affected by pending legislation.
Since the story aired in November, there has been a rush in both the House and Senate to introduce commonsense legislation to ban the insider trading practice. While the bills differ, they essentially prohibit lawmakers from trading based on knowledge gleaned from their unique legislative status. Transactions of more than a $1,000 would be required to be reported within 90 days.
It's about time, but it's still a small step in addressing a glaring hole in congressional ethical standards. In a rare gesture of unity, the measures have attracted the bipartisan support of at least 99 co-sponsors, including Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, along with Republican House members Vern Buchanan, Allen West and Dennis Ross and Democrat Alcee Hastings. Where is the rest of Florida's congressional delegation in signing up to end this shameful practice?
If nothing else, the 60 Minutes story suggests that instead of hectoring candidates to sign meaningless and ideologically grounded pledges not to raise taxes, voters should expect those seeking public office to take a very public pledge that they will not engage in insider trading while on the job.
Holding elected office should be a public honor, not an odiously elitist investment opportunity.