Anybody remember Bobby Baker? He was a Senate staffer who rose to the rank of secretary of the Democratic majority, the go-to guy for any wheels that needed grease, whose influence was such that insiders called him the "101st senator." Few men can resist the temptations of unofficial power; Baker was eventually investigated on allegations of bribery and corruption and resigned his Senate job in 1963 and was later convicted of income-tax evasion.
The Baker scandal led to a rule requiring all members of Congress and their highest-ranking aides to disclose information on all their finances, including capital gains from stock trading. What the rules don't prohibit is congressional staffers profiting from what, in the private sector, would be known as inside information.
A front page story in The Wall Street Journal early last week detailed how "at least 72 aides on both sides of the aisle traded shares of companies their bosses help oversee"-that is, regulate and investigate. "The aides identified by the Journal say they didn't profit by making trades based on any information gathered in the halls of Congress. Even if they had done so, it would be legal, because insider-trading rules don't apply to Congress."
Wait a minute. The law that sent Martha Stewart to jail won't touch the policy advisor to Harry Reid, who doubled his investment in a renewable-energy firm after the Senate passed legislation that benefited the firm? Or the aide to Senate Banking Committee member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who gained a 43 percent profit in bank shares in seven months?
If this is a problem (not everyone believes that insider trading should be prosecuted), it's symptomatic of a bigger problem. Behind every congressman is a crowd of staffers who advise, contact, research, report, and write the laws that Congress eventually votes on. We don't elect a man or woman to the House or Senate; we elect a team. Nobody would deny a legislator the assistance of qualified aides. But the longer the individual remains in office, the more entrenched (and swollen) the team. Like Bobby Baker, some attain levels of influence far above their title, and they're accountable to no one except their own boss.
This is as good a reason for term limits as any: not merely limiting the representatives, but also timing-out the layer of unelected policymakers they bring along with them. It's not likely to happen, short of a total collapse. But if a collapse occurs, that's my first suggestion for reform.