Legislative immunity wrong at all levels of government
When Rep. Laura Bradford allows the Colorado Constitution to grant her immunity from arrest for suspected drunk driving, it implies that her legislative office puts her above the law.
Accepting the option for legislative immunity at the suggestion of the police, as Bradford claims, does not essentially change the situation.
Technically, Bradford may be above the law. Thanks to a legal relic of the rough-and-tumble politics of 1876, Article V, Section 16 of the Colorado Constitution still exists and may occasionally be used by a legislator to avoid the inconvenience of a traffic citation.
That is what apparently happened to Bradford. Stopped by police for erratic driving, she then failed roadside sobriety tests. Rather than submit to arrest for suspected DUI, Bradford either invoked her right to immunity under Article V, Section 16, or followed the suggestion of an officer to take advantage of the option.
Regardless who made the suggestion, the result was the same. Bradford got the taxi ride home instead of a trip to the station.
As The Daily Sentinel pointed out in Tuesday’s editorial, the issue is no longer the possible DUI charge Bradford faced, but whether she “used a constitutional provision ... to avoid the same sort of treatment that average citizens would receive” under similar circumstances.
Compared to the exemption from insider trading laws Congress has assumed for itself, the Bradford episode seems to shrink in significance. But regardless the difference in scale, they share the assumption that legislators should not be subject to “the same sort of treatment that average citizens would receive.”
Traders like Michael Milliken, Martha Stewart and Raj Rajaratnam have paid a high price in treasure and time for gaming the “free market.”
But for members of Congress, inside trading can be a lucrative sideline to their day jobs. As CBS’s 60 Minutes reported recently, “Some members of Congress and their staffs have taken advantage of this opportunity to make large sums of money” by using information known only to a select few insiders.
Nothing in the nature of Congress’s duties justifies this exemption. Rather than promoting good government, it affords opportunities for legislators to act in their own financial interests rather than serving their constituents. Conflicts of interest are almost inevitable.
Faced with sinking approval rating, the Senate on Monday voted by a whopping 93-2 bipartisan majority to bring the STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act to the floor for debate. If STOCK passes, it will prohibit legislators from using information gained in the course of their duties and not available to the public to make stock and securities trades.
The sense of privilege implicit in both Bradford’s individual choice to accept special treatment from the police and Congress’ collective decision to put personal financial agendas before the best interests of their constituents, contributes to the low approval rating given both federal and state government by voters.
The best thing that can come of the Bradford episode would be for the Legislature to put a repeal of this antiquated provision on the ballot for November. Let the voters decide if they want to grant immunity from drunken driving charges to legislators who do government-related work in a Colfax Avenue establishment.
As to insider trading by members and employees of Congress, it should be strictly forbidden. The STOCK Act would promote transparency by requiring lawmakers to disclose major financial transitions with 30 days, including making the information available online.
The bill was endorsed by President Obama last week, and overwhelming support to bring it to the floor bodes well for its future in the Senate.
Both of Colorado’s Democratic senators are on record in support of STOCK, but until it passes an up or down Senate vote, nothing is certain.
Even after passage in the Senate, the House will still need to pass a companion bill.
Voters who agree that the business of Congress should be governing rather than trading securities should keep pressure on both houses to move this legislation forward quickly.
Our future depends on getting members of Congress back to doing the people’s business rather than their own.