House OKs weakened insider trading ban for lawmakers

The House passed a sweeping new ethics bill that bans lawmakers from using insider information for personal gain, but Republican leaders came under criticism for softening the legislation in a way that some view as beneficial to Wall Street investors.

Democrats joined Republicans to give the bill overwhelming support — it passed 417 to 2 — as lawmakers try to show voters they are holding themselves to tough ethical standards. The Senate gave nearly unanimous approval to a different version of the bill last week.

The legislation prohibits lawmakers and executive branch officials from using information they learn on the job, if it is not known publicly, in their personal financial transactions.

But the decision by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to exclude a provision that sought to monitor the flow of "political intelligence" — a relatively newly defined practice of selling Washington information largely to financial investors — puts the legislation on an uncertain path. The Senate bill required those who broker in political intelligence to register much the way lobbyists must do.

"What a sorry — but telling — display," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a government watchdog group. "The Republican leadership's weakening of legislation banning congressional insider trading reflects its commitment to the hedge funds and Wall Street interests."

GOP leaders stood by their decision to dash the provision, which had been added to the Senate bill by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). House Republicans instead opted to have the issue studied.

Grassley called House GOP leadership's action "extremely disappointing." The different versions of the bills must be resolved if they are to become law — an uncertain prospect.

The overwhelming support for the bills came after news reports, including a "60 Minutes" episode, drew attention to lawmakers' personal financial activities.

One addition the GOP leaders made to the House bill stemmed from the news show's investigation into the business dealings of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), whose husband had purchased Visa stock before Congress considered legislation on credit cards. Dubbed the "Pelosi Provision," it would bar lawmakers from using insider information to act on initial public offerings.

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