In January 2008, President George W. Bush was scrambling to bolster the American economy. The subprime mortgage industry was collapsing, and the Dow Jones industrial average had lost more than 2,000 points in less than three months.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner became the Bush administration’s point person on Capitol Hill to negotiate a $150 billion stimulus package.
In the days that followed, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. made frequent phone calls and visits to Boehner. Neither Paulson nor Boehner would publicly discuss the progress of their negotiations to shore up the nation’s financial portfolio.
On Jan. 23, Boehner (R-Ohio) met Paulson for breakfast. Boehner would later report the rearrangement of a portion of his own financial portfolio made on that same day. He sold between $50,000 and $100,000 from a more aggressive mutual fund and moved money into a safer investment.
The next day, the White House unveiled the stimulus package.
Boehner is one of 34 members of Congress who took steps to recast their financial portfolios during the financial crisis after phone calls or meetings with Paulson; his successor, Timothy F. Geithner; or Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, according to a Washington Post examination of appointment calendars and congressional disclosure forms.
The lawmakers, many of whom held leadership positions and committee chairmanships in the House and Senate, changed portions of their portfolios a total of 166 times within two business days of speaking or meeting with the administration officials. The party affiliation of the lawmakers was about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, 19 to 15.
The period covered by The Post analysis was a grim one for the U.S. economy, and many people rushed to reconfigure their investment portfolios. The financial moves by the members of Congress are permitted under congressional ethics rules, but some ethics experts said they should refrain from taking actions in their financial portfolios when they might know more than the public.
“They shouldn’t be making these trades when they know what they are going to do,” said Richard W. Painter, who was chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. “And what they are going to do is then going to influence the market. If this was going on in the private sector or it was going on in the executive branch, I think the SEC would be investigating.”
Boehner, now the speaker of the House, declined to discuss his transactions. His spokesman said they did not pose a conflict because a financial adviser executed them and they were made in diversified mutual funds. Other lawmakers also said their financial advisers handled their trades. They said that the timing of the trades and the conversations was “coincidental” and that they did not adjust their portfolios based on what they were told by the administration officials.
Questions about conflicts of interest and possible insider trading on Capitol Hill prompted Congress to pass the Stock Act this year. The act specifically bans lawmakers, their staffs and top executive branch officials from knowingly using confidential information gleaned from their legislative roles to benefit themselves, their family members or friends.
The act does not prohibit lawmakers from trading stocks in companies that appear before them or from reworking their portfolios after briefings with senior administration officials. Top executive branch officials are banned from investing in industries they oversee and can influence — for example, Fed chairmen are prohibited from investing in the financial sector.
The Post analysis did not turn up evidence of insider trading. Instead, the review shows that lawmakers routinely make trades that raise questions about whether members of Congress have an investing advantage over members of the public.
“Members of Congress are still loosey-goosey about what they require of themselves,” said Painter, who teaches securities law at the University of Minnesota. “I think it’s time for Congress to impose the same rules on themselves that they impose on others. The Stock Act doesn’t do that.”
A shift to Treasury securities
In late 2006, Congress started crafting legislation to overhaul Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a major effort to stem a rising tide of defaults on risky loans given to home buyers with poor credit.
As Congress worked to rein in the two government-sponsored lenders, Fannie and Freddie pushed back with aggressive lobbying campaigns, stalling the effort in early 2007.
Paulson started working the Hill, trying to break the deadlock and win support for the revisions. He called and met with a number of members of Congress, including Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), on this and other reform efforts.