Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has for the first time required all Democratic staff on his committee to provide him with a detailed disclosure of any direct or indirect conflicts of interest they may have as a result of actions taken by the panel.
Senate aides are required to disclose some basic conflicts of interest as part of their employment, and a number of Senators in recent years have imposed more stringent disclosure rules on their personal staff. But Byrd appears to be blazing new territory in requiring aides to disclose even indirect conflicts, such as employment of a spouse by a federal agency, even if the aide’s work does not directly involve that agency’s budget.
“Ethics is not a ‘who cares’ issue for Sen. Byrd,” Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said. Gavin also said that given recent controversies involving earmarks and the appropriations process, Byrd “takes this issue very seriously.”
Byrd’s new disclosure requirements — which apply to aides, their spouses and also other family members — make up the broadest voluntary transparency measure taken by an appropriator in either the House or Senate.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has not imposed a similar rule on GOP committee and subcommittee staff. A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey said the Wisconsin Democrat also does not require aides to disclose potential conflicts of interest. And while a spokesman for House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) did not return calls for comment, House and Senate aides said it does not appear he has followed Byrd’s lead either.
Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the government watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, hailed Byrd’s disclosure rules, arguing that while the public generally has been concerned with instances in which lawmakers or aides have a direct benefit from their official actions, “the committee should be asking harder questions than the general public might” to ensure no appearance of conflicts exists.
“It’s astonishing that they haven’t done it in the past,” Allen said, adding that while most aides may be honest public servants who would not use their official position to benefit themselves or their families, “the fact that it looks like they are [in some cases] … raises the question in the public’s mind.”
In a Jan. 31 letter to committee aides, Byrd explained that to protect the “integrity and reputation of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” it would be necessary to put “procedures in place to avoid conflicts which might interfere with the independent exercise of judgment in the public interest. As a result, I request that you immediately notify me in writing of any circumstance that you face that might present a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict.”
Byrd also noted that the committee disclosure “is in addition to any other financial disclosure or ethics disclosure required of you as a condition of employment in the United States Senate.”
The memo then lays out a series of examples in which aides are to disclose potential conflicts, including:
• an aide’s own outside employment;
• “significant and detailed discussions” with future employers who may be affected by Appropriations Committee actions;
• serving as “officer or director of an organization that receives appropriated funds”;
• whether their spouse works for “a firm, organization or government that, to their knowledge, receives appropriated funds by grant, contract or similar arrangement”;
• whether their spouse works for a federal agency;
• and “direct investments (worth $15,000 or more) by you or a spouse in a firm that, to your knowledge, receives a significant amount of federal contracts or is otherwise significantly affected by the appropriations process.”
Additionally, the directive also covers “spouses or immediate family members” who either work as lobbyists or who “are employed by or otherwise affiliated with firms that lobby on behalf of others (along with the general issues on which the firm lobbies, the appropriations subcommittees involved, and an indication of whether the family member is a part owner or an employee of the firm).”
Byrd also went to lengths to assuage any concerns aides may have that disclosing potential conflicts could affect their employment with the committee, saying in the letter, “I can assure you that while it is possible that some adjustments to duties may be needed in a limited number of cases, no one will lose their job with the Committee as a result of their notification.”
According to Gavin, although aides on the committee detailed a number of instances in which there may be the potential for conflicts, most were of an indirect nature and Byrd determined that no adjustments to their duties were needed.
In fact, aides appear to have taken Byrd’s request very seriously, with many going beyond the level of potential indirect conflicts required under the new rules. Several aides disclosed instances in which parents or other family members worked for federal agencies. In one instance, an aide disclosed having a parent who works for the Postal Service, even though the aide’s duties had nothing to do with the Postal Service’s budget.