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- I was shocked to learn members of Congress trade stocks in companies their decisions affect.
- But they can. And sometimes, their trading habits are disturbing.
- So I decided to do something about it.
On one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s earliest days, a Forbes article slid across my computer screen. The headline: “Senators Accused Of Insider Trading, Dumping Stocks After Coronavirus Briefing.”
It told a story of how Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia together sold millions of dollars in stock after a closed-door coronavirus briefing. Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma also reported a massive early-2020 stock sale, as did Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California on behalf of her husband. Some people accused them of insider trading.
Initially, I was surprised that senators could even trade stocks. This wasn’t something one learned in school. As I dug deeper, I became increasingly shocked.
Not only do members of Congress hold stocks, but some of them day trade, buying and selling shares in the very companies they regulate. Some even exercise potentially lucrative stock options. And until then-President Barack Obama signed the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012 into law, members of Congress were legally allowed — and even encouraged — to potentially profit from information they obtained from their public service.
At first, this made me feel politically powerless, able only to sit idly by and watch ultimately fruitless investigations unfold — neither the Department of Justice nor the Securities and Exchange Commission took action against the lawmakers. As a 17-year-old student at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, I can’t even vote.
So I began working on another way to become civically active, and that night, I made a plan. I would spend the summer of 2021 creating a website — SenateTrades, I dubbed it — that analyzed senators’ public financial disclosures. My goal would be to determine their stock holdings, calculate their annual returns, and display their transactions for anyone to see.
By doing so, I hoped, senators’ trades would be more accessible and the voting public, therefore, could hold them more accountable. Lawrenceville generously backed my project, awarding me a $500 grant to support website and research costs.
When I finished the app at the end of my three month summer vacation, I had tracked over $166 million in stock market transactions across 3,290 purchases and 2,758 sales, made by 68 senators.
What I discovered surprised me: During 2020, my research found, the Senate’s average stock investment return was a very strong 12%, actually underperforming the S&P 500’s staggering 18% run that year. But when the general market plummeted 30% in late March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the Senate’s collective stock average dipped only 15%.
And some senators did extraordinarily well for themselves. By my calculations, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s portfolio, for instance, has returned nearly 20% from January 1, 2020 to date. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has seen his portfolio grow in value by more than 21%. Republican Sen. John Hoeven’s positions, together worth more than $20 million, have returned more than 18%.
Is this because the senators have superior access to information that informs their trading decisions? Is it simply a matter of good fortune or dumb luck? This is notoriously difficult to prove, even for federal regulators and law enforcement.
Since the STOCK Act’s passage, several senators have been accused of wrongdoing and investigated, but never charged. This remains true even though Insider’s “Conflicted Congress” project has identified thousands of congressional stock transactions that violate the STOCK Act’s disclosure provisions. Many more can objectively be described as real or perceived conflicts of interest, such as when lawmakers who oversee the nation’s defense policies and spending simultaneously invest their money in the stock of defense contractors.
I submitted SenateTrades to the 2021 Congressional App Challenge, a prestigious computer science competition to inspire American students to explore coding, innovate policymaking, and connect with their representatives. The app won first place in my congressional district — New York’s 10th District.
Although it felt gratifying to be recognized for my project, I was even more excited to see my website picking up traction among everyday Americans, who can access any senator’s finances in a digestible and practical format. This past spring, I took the project even further, coding a twitter bot, @inside_bear, that automatically tweets the trades of senators and congressmen.
At present, 70% of voters support banning lawmakers from trading stocks, according to a Data for Progress poll. During an April congressional hearing, there was some bipartisan consensus that changes need to be made to congressional stock trading.
But those reforms have yet to be unveiled. If the nation is to improve upon the congressional stock-trading status quo, any new law will have to tighten the relatively loose standards for public officials and also be enforced more consistently than the original STOCK Act. After all, if laws are not enforced, they are futile, no matter how uncompromising they may seem on paper.
My high school social studies class certainly didn’t cover congressional stock trading. But my own study of federal lawmakers’ trades taught me this: When public officials ignore the laws they’ve created for themselves, it is a surefire sign that our democracy isn’t healthy.
George McCain is a rising senior at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He plans to study economics and computer science in college.