Returning from France to consider the new U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson is said to have asked George Washington why the Constitutional Convention felt the need for two legislative chambers.
According to the Senate website, Washington responded with a question: “Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?”
“To cool it,” Jefferson said.
“Even so,” Washington said, “we pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”
But on the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, legislation that codifies a ban on insider trading for Members and staff, it was the Senate channeling the volatile public mood and the House — specifically Majority Leader Eric Cantor — who helped to cool the tea.
Two weeks ago, the Senate added numerous provisions in an amendment vote-a-rama that turned the bill into an ethics Christmas tree. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called it an exercise in “self-flagellation,” and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described it as a “feeding frenzy.”
What helped set it off was a “60 Minutes” segment that alleged Members were in a capacity to use knowledge they gleaned from their positions to profit in their investments. The Senate’s 96-3 vote Feb. 2 after less than a week of floor deliberation put the legislation on a fast track. For a legislative body where routine business gets easily bogged down, it was a remarkably fast run.
When it reached the House, Cantor, working with committee chairmen and other key lawmakers, removed two key Senate provisions before sending the legislation to the floor, where it passed on the suspension calendar, 417-2, last Thursday.
The first key provision removed was sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and required political intelligence consultants to register as lobbyists. The second, from Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), broadened anti-corruption law. The floor process for such a significant bill was noteworthy for the House, as well. The chamber usually reserves the suspension calendar for noncontroversial items, post office namings and the like. And passing the bill under suspension of the rules removes the possibility of amending it on the floor, which happened in the Senate.
Watchdog groups hated Cantor’s actions, and Grassley called the changes “astonishing and extremely disappointing.”
But behind the scenes, Cantor was facing concerns of a different nature. Members expressed alarm that the bill seemed to include contradictory provisions, reached too far, could have criminalized routine behavior and might make insider trading “doubly” illegal.
“Good people are going to go to jail from this,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former judge, said in closed-door meetings.
“Great bill. Way to reinforce the fact that we’re a bunch of crooks, even when we’re not. I’m a yes,” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) deadpanned.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.