By Alexander Bolton - 02/02/12 01:29 AM EST
Senators are now squirming over fast-moving and supposedly non-controversial legislation aimed at barring lawmakers from making insider stock trades.
The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which cleared a procedural hurdle this week on a 93-2 vote, has become a magnet for amendments that could have significant impact on the power and perks lawmakers have enjoyed for decades.
The activist push for strict new regulations, well beyond what authors included in the underlying legislation, has come mostly from junior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“It’s one of these things that turns into a bit of a feeding frenzy,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
One particularly troublesome amendment, as far as members of the upper chamber are concerned, comes from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has proposed that lawmakers who become lobbyists lose their generous federal pensions.
“The language in this amendment is extraordinarily broad,” said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a senior member of the GOP conference and a sponsor of the STOCK Act. “The definition of remuneration includes salaries, any payments for services not otherwise identified as salary, such as consulting fees, honoraria and paid authorship.
“As I read the language, the former member of Congress who writes a book would be in danger of forfeiting his or her pension,” she said.
Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), two junior Democrats, on Wednesday afternoon filed an amendment that would impose a lifetime ban on members of Congress becoming lobbyists and ban staff from lobbying their former bosses for six years. Bennet and Tester have previously made the case for their bill.
Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008, respectively, have also offered a measure that has raised eyebrows. It would require all lawmakers and senior staff to divest of stocks or put their assets in blind trusts.
Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the second-ranking Senate Republican leader, called that proposal “foolish.”
“Why should someone who has worked and accumulated some equity and is investing that in American businesses no longer be able to do that when they’re elected to public office?” he said.
Kyl also panned Paul’s proposal to strip former lawmakers of pensions if they become lobbyists.
“What’s the point of that?” he said. Kyl, who is retiring at the end of the year, noted that former senators are already subject to a two-year post-Congress lobbying ban.
The STOCK Act has drawn amendments that would substantially curb lawmakers’ powers.
Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) have proposed a permanent Senate ban on earmarks, a proposal that splits the Senate GOP conference and riles Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has introduced an amendment expressing support for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress.
But while many lawmakers roll their eyes over a proposed restriction they see as draconian, they acknowledge it will be difficult to vote no at a time when public opinion of Congress is at a record low and many voters are sick of the influence of lobbyists and special interests.
“With a lot of these things, our zeal has overcome our good sense, but it’s fine with me, I’ll vote for it,” McCain said of the proposal to require lawmakers to sell stocks or put their wealth in a blind trust.
McCain said he would also support Paul’s proposal to deny pensions to lawmakers turned lobbyists: “It’s fine. I don’t plan on being a lobbyist, so it’s OK with me.”
The 2008 Republican presidential nominee has millions of dollars in personal wealth because of his wife’s inherited fortune. He is also a household name who could earn millions more sitting on corporate boards and/or on the speaking circuit.
But some lesser-known colleagues are privately counting on careers as lobbyists once they retire from the Senate, where the pay — capped at $174,000 for rank-and-file members — is modest by Washington’s standards.
Former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) are among those who have joined the K Street crowd in recent years.
Unlike most of the bills that come up for votes on the Senate floor, this one has a real chance of passing and becoming law, making votes on amendments that much tougher.
The high stakes have created a procedural logjam that has stalled action on the Senate floor as leaders negotiate in private over which amendments will get votes.
McCaskill said Wednesday she suspected that Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who are both fond of earmarks, would seek to dodge a vote on her amendment.
The STOCK Act unexpectedly gained must-pass status after Democrats raised its profile last month. President Obama called for its passage in his State of the Union address and Reid subsequently announced its consideration on the Senate floor.
Senate Democrats on Monday criticized House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for blocking a December markup of the STOCK Act in the House Financial Services Committee.
Cantor’s staff has emphatically denied the charge and said that House Republicans would unveil an expanded version of the legislation later this month.
Cantor on Tuesday declared that the Senate version of the bill is too weak.
On Wednesday, House Democrats launched a discharge petition to force Republicans to schedule a vote on the STOCK Act in the lower chamber. The legislation has 271 co-sponsors, including 92 Republicans.
To force a vote on the House floor, 218 signatures are needed. GOP leaders in the House have strongly discouraged their members from signing discharge petitions.