In Our View: Listen to Baird

In Sunday’s appearance on ‘60 Minutes,’ former Congressman outlined need for reform

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Two take-aways from Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” on CBS TV: No wonder public “approval” of Congress is at an all-time low of single-digit percentages. And no wonder Brian Baird burned out as a Congressman.

The retired U.S. representative from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District was interviewed during a “60 Minutes” feature about members of Congress reaping huge investment dividends using insider information in ways that could put any of the rest of us behind bars. Baird said: “One line in a bill in Congress can be worth millions and millions of dollars” to a member of Congress who picks up clues during testimony and deliberations for bills. Yet the politicians allow themselves to bypass insider-trading laws.

Sadly, and most frustrating for Baird, his fellow Congress members showed no interest in Baird’s STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act. Baird never received more than six co-sponsors for a bill that would make it illegal for lawmakers to trade stocks on nonpublic information.

What glaring hypocrisy, a perfect example of what’s wrong with politics today. The representatives’ refusal to police themselves in the same way they police their constituents, and Baird’s futility in begging them to do the right thing, exposes the ugly underbelly of elected office.

The appropriate challenge to Baird’s replacement — U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas — is simple: Prove to your bosses (the voters) that you’re serious about cleaning up Congress, and pick up your predecessor’s crusade. Show the depth of your integrity and the power of your statesmanship by enlisting colleagues in this drive for long-overdue reform. Herrera Beutler can start with a worthy and waiting ally, U.S. Rep. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., who remains the bill’s primary sponsor.

Americans are learning what Southwestern Washingtonians realized during Baird’s six terms in Congress: He has a healthy, refreshing and rare belief that Congress needs a bath. Colleagues of both parties, as a group, weren’t very receptive. Best remain in the warm cocoon of Congressional immunity, they cowardly presumed.

The result of that unethical and borderline corrupt self-insulation is reflected in three examples cited by “60 Minutes.” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; House Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.; and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., all profited from investments using nonpublic information. (All three denied the report by CBS). Baird backed it all up, reminiscing: “There was one night, we had a late, late night caucus and you could kind of tell how a vote was going to go the next day. I literally walked home and I thought, ‘Man, if you, if you went online and made some significant trades, you could make a lot of money on this.’”

Ask Raj Rajaratnam what could happen when anyone else with access to nonpublic information tries to profit from it. As “60 Minutes” reported, the hedge fund manager “got 11 years in prison for doing it. But, congressional lawmakers have no corporate responsibilities and have long been considered exempt from insider trading laws, even though they have daily access to nonpublic information and plenty of opportunities to trade on it.”

Baird never deserved the maverick tag many members of Congress hung upon him. When he pushed for a 72-hour reading period for bills, many of his colleagues ignored him. When he pleaded for an improved order of succession to office in case terrorists attacked Congress, they scoffed. Meanwhile, Baird racked up increasingly higher approval ratings from voters, topping out at 64 percent in the election of 2008.

When Congress starts listening to its own true agents of reform, public approval might rise back into double digits.