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Following Senate, House passes congressional insider trading bill

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Tim Walz
Before Rep. Tim Walz, DFL-Mankato, was elected to Congress in 2006, he was a high school civics teacher.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

The U.S. House passed the a bill Thursday that bars members of Congress and their staff from trading stocks based on information they learn from their official duties. 

The vote was 417-2 with all of Minnesota's delegation voting for the legislation.  

The measure, known as the STOCK Act, was introduced by 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz. The bill had languished in Congress for years until a "60 Minutes" report on Congressional insider trading aired last fall. In a speech shortly before the bill passed, Walz said it was a no brainer for Congress.

"We're not here to pat ourselves on the back. This might be the only place where doing the right thing gets you kudos, it's expected of everyone else."

The Senate has passed a similar bill with some important differences that must be worked out before President Obama can sign it into law.

Before he was elected to Congress in 2006, Walz was a high school civics teacher. And the teacher inside him can still be heard when he explains how his bill made it to the floor.

"The public noticed an outrage expressed through the independent press' work following the story," Walz said. "They built a coalition, we reached a compromise and now the way it passed, maybe you could say everybody is equally unhappy. Maybe that's good legislation"

HOTTEST BILL IN TOWN

Last fall, the STOCK Act was an obscure bill that had floated around Congress for six years with barely any support. 

Then the "60 Minutes" report aired. 

With Congress's approval ratings already in the dumps, Walz's bill became the hottest ticket in town for members eager to show that they cared about fighting political corruption.

In just weeks, the bill went from having fewer than a dozen co-sponsors to 280. 

A similar bill was quickly introduced in the Senate and passed that body last week with 96 votes in favor, including both of Minnesota's senators.

CRUCIAL PROVISION

But House Republican leaders, particularly Majority Leader Eric Cantor, intervened to slow the bill's progress.

Cantor halted a crucial hearing on the bill in December and also stripped out a provision that Walz and his primary co-sponsor, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, consider vital.

The provision would have required registration of political intelligence firms that make money peddling inside information about Congress to Wall Street traders.

Cantor said his changes strengthened the bill, however, Slaughter was more blunt.

"I think strengthening here is a euphemism for weakening," she said.

At a press conference with Slaughter on Tuesday, Walz seemed despondent about the backroom deal making that was reportedly taking place between Cantor and lobbyists concerned about new, tighter disclosure requirements.

"This is where Americans say, 'My God, you would have thought this is the one thing they could have got right, that they can agree on,' " Walz said. "It's going to make them, I'm afraid, very cynical."

Still, STOCK Act is the first major ethics bill to pass Congress in five years.

University of Minnesota Law School professor Richard Painter welcomes the bill, and said it clears up some ambiguities in the current law.

Painter also served as chief ethics counsel in the George W. Bush White House and said he was concerned that the political intelligence parts of the bill were far too broad as originally written.

"This particular provision is a feel-good measure, it will help for Election Day, perhaps, and make government look more ethical," Painter said. "But if we really want to solve the problem, we are going to have to regulate the selective disclosure by government officials of nonpublic information."

Instead of requiring political intelligence firms to register, Congress will instead study the issue before deciding what to do.

Other elements also were added to the bill, including one Republicans dubbed the "Pelosi provision" in reference to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's participation in a lucrative initial public offering. Members of Congress will now be barred from taking part in IPOs.

Walz said he can live with those changes and plans begin work on other ethics-related bills.

With Congress' sagging popularity, being known as the legislator who helped pass a bill to clean up Capitol Hill is also smart politics.

One of Walz's possible Republican opponents next fall, state Sen. Mike Parry, has accused Walz of being part of what's wrong with Washington. However, with this victory, Walz is sure to argue that's he really part of the solution.