Running for Congress Isn’t a Family Business | Commentary

Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:53pm

Earlier this month, the government shutdown left most federal workers furloughed as the country spiraled toward an economic crisis — but members of Congress kept fundraising. So what is all that money used for?

As “60 Minutes” reported earlier this month, surprisingly often, members of Congress are using it to pay family members, pick up the tab at expensive hotels and restaurants, and cover other expenses the rest of us have to pay for ourselves.

My organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, routinely combs through campaign finance reports and other documents in an attempt to follow the money. In “Family Affair,” a report published last year, we found that more than 75 members of the House had paid family members through their campaign committees or political action committees during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, and 90 representatives paid or contributed to family businesses, employers or associated nonprofits.

Some other spending caught our attention, too. There was the expensive hotel stay in Athens, Greece, for Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., who reimbursed his campaign after we reported the expense. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, used his campaign funds to pay to renew his membership in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — hard to see how that’s relevant to his day job.

Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Tim Walz, D-Minn., used campaign funds to pay their babysitters.

Our report caused a stir, but while anti-nepotism laws bar members of Congress from hiring relatives for their official staffs, they continue to put family members on the campaign payroll. The campaign of Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., who retired last month to take a job with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, has paid his two daughters nearly $190,000 in salary since January 2011. Freshman Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., put his wife, Kris, on his campaign payroll less than two weeks after his swearing-in last January; his campaign has reported paying her more than $12,000 since then.

As “60 Minutes” reported, CREW found that retired Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, had at least six family members on the payroll during the 2008 and 2010 campaign cycles. Now retired and no longer running for any office, he’s still paying family members. Paul’s daughter, Lori Pyeatt, has received more than $16,000 so far this year in salary payments from his congressional campaign committee, his presidential campaign committee and his leadership PAC.

Some members of Congress have defended the practice of hiring family members, with one arguing, as Alexander did, “If one can’t trust their daughter, then who can they trust?” Others claim their family members are qualified. Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., for instance, has paid his daughter-in-law’s company more than $150,000 for fundraising consulting since 2011 alone. Enzi has said his daughter-in-law Danielle was a fundraiser before she married into the family, and he’s happy with her work.

To be sure, the Federal Election Commission, the government’s campaign finance watchdog, specifically allows candidates to use campaign funds to pay family members who provide bona fide services and are paid fair market value. Such arrangements are rarely challenged, however, and wispy reporting requirements and elastic definitions make it difficult to determine whether family members are doing the work they are paid to do. Weak oversight by the FEC compounds the problem.

Many states have enacted prohibitions against using campaign funds to pay family members, and Congress should follow suit. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has introduced a bill to prohibit candidate committees and leadership PACs from hiring candidates’ or officeholders’ spouses. Passage of this bill would be a step in the right direction, but Vitter doesn’t appear to be pushing it very hard; at this point, the legislation has no co-sponsors and no similar bill has been introduced in the House.

Polls show contempt for Congress is at an all-time high, and most people think members are more concerned with their self-interests than the public interest. Using campaign funds to pay family members and offset personal expenses reinforces this belief.

Perhaps one day soon, Congress will recognize the American people are fed up with their incessant demands for more and more money while they deliver less and less.

Melanie Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.