The work of the United States Congress is often a family affair. Sounds so American, so wholesome, right?
For us old timers, conjure up an Ozzie and Harriet episode where Ozzie has been elected to Congress and their sons, Ricky and David, offer their humble opinions to Representative Nelson. Or to use a family a bit more in the news these days, Kim Kardashian may whisper in the ear of the newly elected Rep. Khloé Kardashian how she should vote on a bill to ban tight dresses in the halls of Congress.
These two harmless scenarios are far from the family affairs that go on in Congress. In Washington, a family affair means large companies pay a congressional family member, handsomely, to lobby their own relatives in Congress.
Legal? Oh yes. Ethical? No way.
This is just one more example of why the vast majority of America holds Congress in such low esteem.
The Washington Post, in a December 2012 story, reported that between 2007 and 2012, at least 56 relatives of lawmakers were paid to influence Congress. Lobbying firms paid millions of dollars to their “lobbying teams” that included relatives of elected officials.
In 2007, the House of Representatives, in a feeble attempt to clean up this outrageous practice, did ban spouses from lobbing their spouses. The Senate went further and prohibited all immediate family members from lobbing their relatives.
But that still left a whole lot of other relatives able to lobby a congressional family member. In the Senate, for example, a son-in-law can lobby his father-in -law or a father can lobby his daughter, the congresswoman. And there are dozens of other family connections that can still lobby the family member in Congress. When a Senator’s favorite uncle, a lobbyist for an oil company, calls about legislation important to his company, does the senator take the telephone call? Damn right he does.
In one situation a former Republican representative, Jo Ann Emerson, had two daughters who were on different corporate lobbyist teams that tried to influence numerous bills cosponsored by their mother.
“Not an ethical problem,” said the representative in a statement released by her office. “I do not know on what issues my daughters work for their employers. We never, ever discuss their work. My daughters do not influence my opinion of, or action on, any issues before Congress.”
Is this a mother who doesn’t care about her daughters or an ethical congressmember? Likely neither
“Family Comes First” is not just a Republican value. Take for example, Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid, considered the most powerful force in the Senate.
From all reports, he’s one hell of a father–in-law.
Sen. Reid’s son-in-law Steven G. Barringer got his own seat on the family gravy train when his law firm was paid over $240,000 to lobby Congress. And there have been numerous other times since 1999 that Sen. Reid’s son-in-law’s law firm has been paid large sums to influence Congress.
Do you think Harry talks to his son-in-law about pending legislation when he’s over for dinner at his daughter and son-in-law’s house? Or is there a sign in the family dinning room that says: “No discussion of pending legislation allowed here!”
I doubt it.
And even if such a warning existed, Sen. Reid knows who pays his son-in-law to lobby.
So, if you want to be a player in the Washington scene, I suggest you convince your mother, father, Uncle Charlie, or Aunt Ethel to make a run for Congress.
They win, and you can pack your bags for Washington, D.C., and piles of money. Maybe not as much dough as the lottery, but a better bet.
Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.