Family Ties, Cont’d

Posted February 10, 2004 at 4:51pm

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is proposing a rewrite of the Senate Ethics Manual to include a ban on family members of Senators lobbying them or their staffs. We emphatically support the idea. But it doesn’t go far enough. The ban should apply to the staffs of committees the Senators sit on. And, the House should adopt a similar rule.

Right now, the Senate manual is vague and merely cautionary about the subject of family lobbying. Also, it refers only to spouses. The House has no rules at all. Meantime, the practice is expanding and raises suspicions that Members are being unethically influenced either directly or indirectly by their lobbyist family ties.

The Los Angeles Times in July, 2003, counted 17 Senators and 11 Representatives with family members as registered lobbyists. Two years ago, Roll Call found 22 Members with families lobbying either in Washington or in their home states. And neither list counted relatives who are in “government relations” or “public relations” posts with corporations or special-interest groups, but who aren’t actually registered.

As the L.A. Times was researching its article, Reid issued a directive that neither his son, Key, nor his son-in-law could lobby either his personal office or his Minority Whip’s office. Now, as ranking member on the Ethics Committee, Reid says he has asked Chairman George Voinovich (R-Ohio) to conduct a “Senate-wide review of policies that relate to lobbying practices,” including family lobbying.

The Times piece drew the tightest connections between Members, their lobbyist relatives and special-interest legislation in the cases of Reid and Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), John Breaux (D-La.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.). As Roll Call reported last month, Lott’s son, Chet, apparently has ceased lobbying and Stevens’ son, Ben, is now an Alaska state legislator and only a part-time consultant to the fisheries industry he used to represent.

However, Stevens’ wife, Catherine, is a registered lobbyist with the law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw and lists “monitor appropriations issues” as one of her principal activities. Stevens, of course, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The natural question is: Does she influence her husband to look favorably upon her clients’ funding requests, or do the clients hire her to send a favorable message to the chairman? Or both?

Whenever any Member is asked such a question, he or she protests that no impropriety whatsoever is involved. But, we’re not alone in doubting it. On ABC last week, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley described employment of family members as a “perfectly legal” form of “bribery.”

Reid has moved to stop this, in part. But he doesn’t go far enough.