Spencer Bachus’ alleged insider trading

CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran an interesting piece last night on the practice of federal lawmakers making investment decisions based on inside information that the public does not have. It’s legal — members of Congress exempted themselves from insider-trading laws — but to put it mildly, the appearance of impropriety is hard to miss.

The report raised questions about several lawmakers, though the cases against most of them were pretty weak. There was one notable exception: the “60 Minutes” report made Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) look awful.

In mid September 2008 with the Dow Jones Industrial average still above ten thousand, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke were holding closed door briefings with congressional leaders, and privately warning them that a global financial meltdown could occur within a few days. One of those attending was Alabama Representative Spencer Bachus, then the ranking Republican member on the House Financial Services Committee and now its chairman.

Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer: These meetings were so sensitive that they would actually confiscate cell phones and Blackberries going into those meetings. What we know is that those meetings were held one day and literally the next day Congressman Bachus would engage in buying stock options based on apocalyptic briefings he had the day before from the Fed chairman and treasury secretary. I mean, talk about a stock tip.

While Congressman Bachus was publicly trying to keep the economy from cratering, he was privately betting that it would, buying option funds that would go up in value if the market went down. He would make a variety of trades and profited at a time when most Americans were losing their shirts.

Bachus refused a request for an interview, and his office would only say that the far-right congressman does not do what he appears to have already done.

But the case against Bachus is just brutal. He was receiving secret briefings on the imminent collapse of the global economy, and then making dozens of options trades that would make him wealthy as the economy deteriorated, relying on information that the rest of us didn’t have.

This is, by all appearances, legal. It shouldn’t be. Not only is it unfair to give elected officials an investment advantage on an unlevel playing field, but it’s madness to allow an influential lawmaker like Bachus to have a personal financial incentive — putting money in his own pocket — if the nation’s economic conditions worsen while he works on economic legislation.

For that matter, for the House Republican leadership to learn about Bachus’ trades, and nevertheless allow him to serve as the chairman of the committee that oversees the financial industry, should be a fairly significant scandal in its own right.