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Congress takes shot at honesty

So, what will an approval rating in the single digits — or, more accurately, a disapproval rating of more than 90 percent — make a lawmaker do, especially in an election year?

Well, within a week’s time it prompted both houses of Congress agree to put in writing that members of Congress really shouldn’t be allowed to make financial investments based on insider information they get as members of Congress.

Maybe.

That there’s a maybe involved in this might be surprising. After all, the Senate approved a bill to that effect by a 96-3 vote. Not to be outdone, the House last week passed its version by an even wider margin, 417-2. The only true bipartisan issue in Congress is getting re-elected and this bill — have no doubts — is an image scrubber for a branch of government that is encased in political soot.

The maybe comes from a pair of provisions in the Senate bill that the House took out.

The first provision the House didn’t like was one that would treat those who Congress members or staff slipped some inside intelligence to as if they were lobbyists. Under the Senate proposal, if John Q. Public makes a killing on an investment based on insider information he got from U.S. Rep. Seymore Donations or congressional aides, Mr. Public would be obligated to register like a lobbyist, file reports detailing what he spends and who he’s talking to.

This made enough U.S. representatives queasy enough to jettison that part from the House bill.

Second, the Senate bill would restore some prosecutorial tools that would make it easier to go after state and federal officials for public corruption. The House stripped that out as well, although, in fairness, there is a legitimate question as to whether those provisions, similar to ones already struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, would pass muster with the courts.

The “maybe” part is whether the House and Senate will be able to compromise on these two provisions. Until they reconcile the differences between the two bills, neither is going anywhere.

Given the high court’s ruling, we can see where the provision for the prosecutorial tools might be dropped, but there is no good reason to not require those who benefit financially from information they acquire from congressional sources to adhere to rules at least as strict as those placed on lobbyists. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., argues the language is too vague, though he carries the argument to the ridiculous in suggesting constituents “might” not be allowed to even ask for updates on where legislation stands because of the way the Senate bill is written. If that is really the objection, he and his cohorts in the House should massage the text rather than summarily strike it through.

What is truly astounding in all this is that Congress even has to pass a law prohibiting its members from profiteering from their office. When a political institution has to pass a law to prevent it from doing something that is so obviously unethical, it’s small wonder why nine out of 10 Americans are fed up with the federal Legislature.