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April 29, 2013

Taking STOCK of “Political Intelligence”

Information means everything.

Students cramming for their final exams likely wouldn’t be so stressed out if they had access to the test answers beforehand.  Farmers wouldn’t lose so much sleep second-guessing their marketing decisions if they knew exactly when to lock in the top dollar for their grain.  And retirees wouldn’t feel like they were playing the lottery in the markets if they were privy to government policies that would affect their investment interests.

Like I said, information means everything.

Turns out, some people on Wall Street have figured out a way to read Washington’s mind.  Instead of paying a fortune teller, they are hiring so-called political intelligence brokers.

This new crop of information specialists has figured out how to turn government information into a profit-making venture.  As Washington’s appetite for taxing and spending grows bigger and bigger, so too does the value of inside government information.

Uncle Sam’s spending and regulatory decisions affect all Americans from Main Street to Wall Street.  From transportation spending to defense contracts and Medicare reimbursements, the leaders of America’s businesses and industries take into account Washington’s next policy moves when deciding whether to invest and grow their business or to cut back and shrink payroll.

In government circles, information and access long have made Washington’s carousel go ’round.  Consider the lobbying industry.  Even though it plays a legitimate role for a broad spectrum of constituencies, which otherwise might not have the time and know-how to track legislative and regulatory decisions, it also has earned an unfavorable reputation among the American public.  Despite its tarnished image of well-heeled, well-paid lobbyists who peddle their influence for special interests at the expense of the public interest, lobbying plays a significant and public role in American politics.  The First Amendment, in fact, specifies the right of Americans to petition government.  The Declaration of Independence recognizes that our government requires the consent of the governed.  

In the interest of transparency and good government, U.S. lobbyists are subject to comprehensive disclosure rules that require them to document their business, including for whom they lobby and for how much.  Campaign donors are also subject to public scrutiny.

As part of my crusade to champion good governance measures in Washington and Wall Street, I’m working to bring transparency and accountability to this growing phenomenon known as political intelligence-gathering.

Last year my bipartisan amendment that would have required political intelligence officers to register the same way lobbyists have to register was deleted from the “Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge,” or STOCK Act, that was sent to the President’s desk.  Although my amendment won the support of 60 U.S. Senators and 286 House members, the disclosure requirement was stripped from the bill.

My amendment simply said the American people have a right to know who is seeking and selling information from the legislative or the executive branches to clients who intend to use it to trade stocks.   

Meanwhile, the political intelligence industry is open for business, operating behind closed doors out of the public’s eye.  After digging up information in the halls of Congress and nosing around the federal bureaucracy, the political intelligence industry is profiting from non-public government information that Main Street does not have and that Wall Street is secretly buying.  These nuggets can turn into a potential gold mine for those who pay for it and hold an advantage in the market.

Congress needs to rein in Washington’s secret merry-go-round to protect the taxpaying public from being taken for a ride.  Since they finance the government, the American people have a right to know who gleans and who gains from the sale of government information.  The knowledge belongs to the people, and if it’s being bought or sold, the American people should know who is doing the buying and selling.