Making money in Congress
Once a candidate actually makes it into Congress, he's presented with new opportunities to increase his wealth -- some that are unmatched in the corporate world.
There are some ethics restrictions in place that limit the income congressional members can take in; for instance, they're not allowed to take in outside income (from sources like speaking fees) that amounts to more than 15 percent of their salary (the base pay for a member of Congress is $174,000).
And like everyone else, members of Congress are subject to current insider trading laws. However, current insider trading laws do not apply to nonpublic information about current or upcoming congressional activity -- that's because members of Congress aren't technically obligated to keep that information confidential.
Congressmen can get away with "the type of insider trading that would send Martha Stewart to prison," Holman said. "They go into hearings and confidential meetings with business interests, understanding new legislation is going to come out next week," and are free to trade on that information.
So, for instance, if a lawmaker learns an upcoming bill will grant a company a large government contract, which could boost that company's stock, he or she is free to buy that stock ahead of the bill's public introduction.
released last month by four universities found that on average, stock portfolios held by House members from 1985 to 2001 beat the market average by approximately 6 percent annually. In 2004, the same group of professors found that the average stock portfolios held by members of the Senate beat the market average by about 10 percent.
Officially, House ethics rules
say it would "impractical or unreasonable" to ask members of Congress to divest from industries over which they have jurisdiction, in part because a congressman may have been elected to represent a "common interest" he shares with his constituents. Thus, the rules say, if asked to divest in that industry, the member of Congress may be "ineffective in representing the real interests of the constituents."
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House ethics rules
dictate that a lawmaker should "never use any information coming to him confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making a private profit." House rules, however, are only enforced on an internal basis, and breaches of the rules are often lightly punished, if at all.
Democratic Reps. Louise Slaughter of New York and Tim Walz of Minnesota have introduced legislation
to stop insider trading in Congress. But the bill, which has been introduced before, has never had more than 14 congressional sponsors.
"To make decisions on the House floor or in committee hearings, members of Congress sometimes need access to non-public information," Slaughter said in a statement, "but they should not be able to profit off that information."
It's not just the lawmakers themselves who exist in this ethical grey space -- sometimes a congressman's spouse or family member is in a position to profit from congressional actions, raising questions about how far to extend conflict of interest rules.
"We find that one really effective way for a corporation to do influence peddling without actually bribing a member of Congress is hire the spouse," Holman said. "They'll hire these spouses at exorbitant salaries, and that money really goes directly into the pocket of the member."
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank recently acknowledged
that in the 1990s he helped his then-partner get a lucrative job with Fannie Mae, though he said he did nothing wrong. New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgensen, who reported the detail in a new book, said in an interview
that Fannie Mae "rolled out the red carpet" for Frank's partner to try to win him over, since he was a member of the Financial Services Committee.
Before Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh retired last year, he was the subject of scrutiny
because his wife earned more than $1 million a year from sitting on various corporate boards in sectors like pharmaceuticals and insurance. Bayh said his wife's business interests didn't influence his votes on policy that impacted those sectors.
Once a member leaves office, even more opportunities for financial gain present themselves. According to Public Citizen, between 1998 and 2006, 43 percent of all members of Congress took lobbying jobs after leaving Congress, landing positions with an average annual salary of $2 million.
While there's room for debate as to whether Congress should adopt more rules to avoid conflicts of interest, it's clear that the more transparency there is, the better. When it comes to the disclosure of lawmakers' personal assets, however, there is certainly room for improvement -- starting with putting the information online, said Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Digital scanners and the Internet have been a around for a while now," he said wryly. "But there hasn't been any action. We would hope members of Congress would see the wisdom in making this information accessible to the public."