Last Monday, President Obama signed legislation that rolled back provisions on the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge).
The law, which passed last year to much public celebration, requires high ranking government officials and congressmen to disclose any financial trades they make based on information they obtained at work — essentially ensuring the executive and congressional branches were not exempt from prohibitions against insider trading.
But rather than making the disclosures of their trades publicly and digitally available, the newly signed provisions require all information requests be made in person, at the D.C. basement office. Watchdog groups or any concerned parties have to make one-page-per-hour requests to be printed on site, and with specific names and trades in the request — at 10 cents a page!
The whole process of acquiring the relevant information on congressional activity has been bottlenecked to the point of futility. According to an NPR article, the law's teeth have been pulled so severely that only a sluggish bureaucratic beast remains:
"The database itself is almost meaningless," says Holman. He says the only option for those who want to get a comprehensive look at what some 2,900 staffers have filed is to review the cases one by one. "And that's just too big a job for anybody to do."
The STOCK Act was supposed to make this task significantly easier. Records for members of Congress, the executive branch and their staffs were supposed to be posted online in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format. If you wanted to see who traded health care stock just before a committee acted on a health care bill, it would be easy. No "trips to the basement" required.
This kind of backpedaling only gives popular support to groups like Anonymous, who thrive on stealing and releasing data they deem of "public interest." They've even recently managed to raise tens of thousands of dollars to create their own dedicated news service.
In defense of the recent legal modification, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and several other national security officials expressed concern that full public disclosures might endanger diplomatic personnel and expose congressmen to identity theft — a rather weak defense for the essentially castrated legislation.
The main feature of the STOCK Act, which makes it illegal to trade on inside information, is still very much intact. But we are now being asked to trust politicians to police themselves — just like we've been asked to accept a health care system with no a public option, a safer and more efficient drone based warfare that still rakes up high civilian casualties, a failure to enact meaningful gun control legislation, a failure to hold financial institutions accountable for their blatant criminal corruption — and so on.
When examining the cancers of our democracy, it becomes impossible to tell if the citizenry is too apathetic or the leadership too cynical. Politicians endlessly debate judges over our bedroom habits, while we glue ourselves to the TV watching violence porn. Meanwhile, the house just passed the CISPA law, devouring online privacy by converting sites like Facebook and Google into information funnels for the government. Those companies that once so proudly opposed the SOPA law, demanding a free internet for the public — are falling in line for the revised CISPA version, now that they are immune from prosecution for spying on their users.
The theater of democracy marches on, and Obama has promised to veto the CISPA law. But if the pattern of his presidency is any indication, that will only mean another year of negotiated terms before a slightly modified version sneaks through.
Perhaps, this is the eternal nature of politics. We hold our leaders accountable to lofty promises, and grumble our dissatisfaction when they couldn't fully protect the public trust. However, the rotating door and repugnant lobbying culture of D.C. was one of Obama's biggest criticisms against Citizens United's "monetization of politics."
How does the removal of accountability and transparency from STOCK speak to his supposed indignation?