This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill.
While Washington and social media are all atwitter over the STOCK Act and the confirmation hearing of Health and Human Services secretary nominee, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), it is a provision in the House ethics rules that should receive attention today.
In the past 72 hours, questions have been raised about whether Price’s purchase of stock in Zimmer Biomet and other health care companies violated the STOCK Act, which was designed to combat insider trading among members of Congress.
The fever-pitch debate reverberated throughout the Hill, and many lawmakers challenged Price on this topic during his Senate confirmation hearing today. But given the information currently in public circulation, there is no clear case that Price has committed a violation of the STOCK Act. That measure requires credible evidence of insider knowledge.
There is a separate question, however, where there is a clear case that Price may have violated House ethics rules. Long-standing rules governing the House draw a clear dividing line between the standards governing when a representative should vote on a bill that affects him or her as a member of a “class” and those that apply when a lawmaker is engaging in “advocacy.”
That difference was highlighted last year when Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas), who owns an automobile dealership in his home state, offered an amendment exempting such businesses from a pending surface transportation bill in Congress.
The Office of Congressional Ethics—itself a target of political ire in recent weeks—unanimously referred his case to the House Ethics Committee because there was “substantial reason to believe that Rep. Williams’ personal financial interest in his auto dealership may be perceived as having influence his performance of official duties.” His investigation is pending before the House Ethics Committee.
As the House Ethics Manual states, while there is no obligation for a member to recuse himself when that member is “affected only as a member of a class rather than as an individual,” it also explains that a member undertakes other actions in connection with their official duties, including “sponsoring legislation, advocating or participating in an action by a House Committee … such actions entail a degree of advocacy above and beyond that involved in voting.” The manual stresses that a member should clear such advocacy implicating financial interests with the House Ethics Committee.
Under the rules, it appears Price engaged in advocacy, championing legislation or amendments that could directly benefit him financially.
This is not just a Capitol Hill fight. If confirmed, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price will play a large role in determining what the future of healthcare looks like for hundreds of millions of Americans.
While it is probably too late for a determination on this issue in the House, the Senate should consider Price’s actions and determine whether they believe these actions constitute grounds for a “no” vote on his confirmation. Once he leaves Congress, neither the House Ethics Committee nor the Office of Congressional Ethics will have jurisdiction. All the more reason for the Senate to take this into careful consideration.
Meredith McGehee is chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One. She previously spent more than a decade as policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and has been named 10 times a top grassroots lobbyist in Washington by The Hill.
Issue: Congressional Ethics