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Lobby Loophole Clears Senate Spouses

Senators last week locked horns over the scope of an ethics reform provision that bans lawmakers’ spouses from lobbying the chamber. But the fracas may have been much ado about nothing.

Democratic leaders argued the proposal, pushed by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), would force some Senate spouses from their jobs. Vitter retorted that was exactly the point, and after Democrats backed down, his amendment was adopted by a voice vote.

Now, as the dust settles from last week’s debate over ethics reforms, it seems few, if any, Senate spouses will have to start collecting unemployment.

While Vitter dropped a grandfather clause he initially had included in the measure, he preserved one exemption that will keep a couple of Senate spouses in the business: If they began lobbying at least a year before the election of their spouse, the ban doesn’t touch them.

That loophole clears both former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), husband of Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), as well as Kim Dorgan, wife of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Dole joined Alston & Bird in 2003 and began lobbying for a handful of clients. He made headlines last year when, after his wife urged caution in dealing with the controversy over the pending takeover of several U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World, it was revealed he had inked a deal to represent the company.

But since Dole began his work for the company more than a year before his wife won her Senate seat from North Carolina, the new ethics rule will not affect him. Ditto for Kim Dorgan, who started her career as a lobbyist for Nike in 1982. Her husband didn’t come to Congress until 1985, when he won a House seat.

Dorgan now serves as the top in-house lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurers.

Neither does the ban affect Catherine Stevens, wife of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and a lawyer and lobbyist for Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw. Though Stevens has registered to lobby for several clients since 2001, most recently King Ranch, a firm official said her work never takes her to Capitol Hill.

Rather, she occasionally contacts federal agencies, work required to be disclosed by current lobbying laws, but would not be affected by the Vitter measure, which applies only to the Senate.

“Mrs. Stevens does not lobby Congress, period,” said Peter Scher, chairman of the firm’s government and global trade practice.

That leaves only Lucy Calautti, wife of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Since 2000, Calautti has lobbied on behalf of a handful of clients at the firm Baker & Hostetler. Last year, she represented two financial services firms and helped her shop bring in $360,000 for the first half of the year alone on a contract with Major League Baseball.

Conrad was elected in 1986, long before Calautti began her lobbying career. The pair reportedly have a strict rule against her lobbying the office, but that does not address the rest of the chamber. Calautti did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Asked about the impact of the measure, Conrad said, “Not talking about it,” before ducking onto the Senate floor.

So was the entire scuffle about a grandfather clause really about the career of one Senator’s wife? Sources on both sides of the fight insist it was not.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the majority wasn’t thinking about particular lawmakers when they raised objections to Vitter’s proposal.

“We thought it was wrong to retroactively impose criminal penalties. For people who conducted their professional lives within the bounds of the law to suddenly find what they had been doing was now criminal, we thought was extreme,” he said. “It was a matter of principle. It wasn’t about protecting this person or that person.”

Vitter said he remained willfully unaware of who, exactly, his proposal would target. “I didn’t want to make it personal in that way,” he said. Nevertheless, he said it was his understanding the ban would affect “one or more” lawmakers currently in office.

The list of affected Members could grow as House lawmakers take the next step in the ethics reform drive.

The wife of Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), for example, lobbies for Van Scoyoc Associates. A spokeswoman for the lawmaker said she was unsure whether a House ban based on the Vitter plan would target LaTourette’s wife. “Whatever the final ethics package ends up being, he’ll abide by it,” the spokeswoman said.

And Vitter said he would support expanding the list of relatives covered by the ban — to include siblings and children — when the bill reaches conference negotiations, provided such a change wouldn’t sink the bill. That modification could rope in several dozen lawmakers in both chambers.

Also Tuesday, Democratic Reps. Marty Meehan (Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) introduced a bill to force lobbyists to disclose campaign contributions they gather from other donors and hand over to candidates — a practice known as bundling.

Van Hollen offered a similar measure last year as an amendment to the Republican-authored ethics bill. But after being adopted by the Judiciary Committee, House GOP leaders dropped the language before bringing the package to the floor.

Senators included a bundling disclosure requirement in the ethics reform bill they approved last week.

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