On Wednesday, as President Biden’s agenda faltered again in the Senate, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi came out swinging. Not against Joe Manchin or the business interests he mollifies, but against a ban on members of Congress being able to trade stocks. “This is a free market, and people — we are a free-market economy. They should be able to participate in that,” she told an Insider reporter after a recent investigation by the website found that “49 members of Congress and 182 senior congressional staffers have violated the STOCK Act, a law to prevent insider trading.”
That puts Pelosi at odds with progressive members of her own party, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “It is absolutely ludicrous that members of Congress can hold and trade individual stock while in office,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted earlier this month. “The access and influence we have should be exercised for the public interest, not our profit. It shouldn’t be legal for us to trade individual stock with the info we have.”
Evidence suggests that Ocasio-Cortez has a valid point. Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Pelosi, said the speaker does not own any stocks herself — but her husband does, and his portfolio adds greatly to her familial wealth. His trades have attracted public attention in the past: Investors on TikTok follow his moves closely, looking for signs because he is the spouse of the Speaker. “Investors perceive that senators may have insider information,” Dinesh Hasija, an assistant professor of strategic management at Augusta University, told NPR in September. “And we see abnormal positive returns when there’s a disclosure by a senator.”
Members of Congress do occupy a unique, almost exalted position, and a person doesn’t need much imagination to believe that the information a politician can access might be financially useful to themselves. In January, the Department of Justice ended an investigation into Republican senator Richard Burr for alleged insider trading. Along with several other senators, Burr had dumped stock in early 2020 after receiving privileged information showing COVID would be a disaster, while the public still knew little about the nightmare ahead. Defined broadly, free-market principles may well dictate total liberty for a member of Congress; let a person profit wherever they can. Yet there are obvious drawbacks for everyone else. The average individual investor can’t match the information or access available to a member of Congress. This is how the free market tends to work. A few profit at the top while people struggle in the middle and at the bottom. Prosperity exists, but it’s not universal.
Pelosi should know that too. Wednesday’s attitude is a particularly bad look for her. She is an exceptionally wealthy person in addition to being Speaker of the House. There’s no reason a wealthy person can’t serve the public interest; Pelosi belongs to the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously a “traitor to his class.” Her position, however, is poorly suited to the legacy of FDR. As the party prepares to let student loans go back into repayment and the child tax credit is set to expire, Pelosi is hard at work defending what may amount to insider trading by members of Congress. There isn’t much for a voter to respect here, whether they’re a Democrat, a Republican, or a nomad wondering if they’ve got a political home at all.
The boring truth is that political power properly comes with responsibilities. Those responsibilities aren’t about fun or profit. The act of holding public office feels now like a line on a résumé, a stepping-stone to positions of ever greater power, rather than an act of service. When that happens, the public loses. As Republicans embrace their role as the party of the ruling class, workers, the poor, and even the middle class must search for representation elsewhere. Democrats are all they can count on, barring radical changes to our political system. Should members of Congress cease trading stocks, maybe they would be admitting the free market isn’t about freedom for everyone — but would that be such a bad thing for us and our democracy? If Pelosi is content to let elite rule roll forward unchallenged, she’ll be complicit in a form of decadence that will hollow our democracy from the inside out.
People need something more, something better. A ban on stock trading by members of Congress won’t transform America overnight. Our problems are so vast no simple trick will fix them. But it wouldn’t be such a bad place to start.