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Doolittle Has Never Been Shy About Perks

In February 1991, Rep, John Doolittle (R-Calif.) had been in the House for only a couple of months, but he already had some ideas about how to change the place.

Though Doolittle would later make his name as one of the reform-minded “Gang of Seven” — and has more recently come under scrutiny in the federal corruption investigation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff — these weren’t ideas about cutting the size of government or doing away with Member perks.

On the contrary, Doolittle thought Members needed more pay and benefits. A lot more.

Doolittle presented a list of proposals to the House Administration Committee in 1991 that called for Members to receive a per-diem stipend of at least $92 per day; for “a corps of staff to assist the members, to perform routine tasks such as rides to airports, pickups, deliveries, etc;” for “an additional automobile” for each Member to use in Washington, D.C.; and for the government to pay for the moving expenses of lawmakers and their families when they relocate to the nation’s capital.

None of those proposals ever came to pass, but Doolittle has continued throughout his career to advocate increasing compensation and benefits for Members and their families.

Doolittle regularly has found ways under existing rules to benefit his own family by hiring his wife as a fundraiser, thus allowing the family to pocket a cut of his political donations, or using two campaign accounts to cover babysitting costs. In addition, Doolittle, like many Members, has not been shy about taking expensive, privately funded trips, sometimes with his wife or daughter in tow.

Dan Blankenburg, Doolittle’s deputy chief of staff, said his boss’ general feeling on the issue of Member benefits was that lawmakers should receive the same perks that most private-sector employees get.

“He thinks that Members of the House, the staff and all federal employees should have the same benefits that all Americans are insured with,” Blankenburg said, pointing out that federal employees, for example, currently don’t receive a dental or vision benefit.

“I think it’s just creating parity in the HR marketplace,” he said.

When Roll Call wrote in 1992 about Doolittle’s list of suggestions from the previous year, Doolittle blamed Democrats for allegedly leaking the document in an effort to hurt his re-election campaign. He also said the list, which included ways to change the House’s procurement policies, was an effort “to make the House run more efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Doolittle’s activities have drawn increased attention as the investigation into Abramoff, a longtime Doolittle ally, has grown. Abramoff gave generously to Doolittle’s various campaign accounts over the course of several years, and the California lawmaker — an avowed gambling opponent — has written letters to the Interior Department advocating stances that would benefit tribal casino clients of Abramoff.

Doolittle also has steered federal money toward a company owned by another of his campaign donors, defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who is being investigated in connection to the bribery case of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

On a personal level, Doolittle has most recently drawn attention for using his political action committee, the Superior California Leadership Fund, and his re-election campaign committee to pay for babysitting services, a practice first reported in a Washington Post editorial last week.

In total, Doolittle’s two campaign accounts have spent close to $6,000 on child care since 2001.

Before that report, Doolittle was the subject of negative press attention related to his campaign’s employment of Sierra Dominion Financial Services, a fundraising firm run by his wife, Julie, out of their Oakton, Va., home.

The practice is allowed under Federal Election Commission rules, and several Members employ spouses and relatives on their campaign payrolls. But Doolittle’s actions have received extra media attention because of the amounts of money involved.

Since 2002, Sierra Dominion has banked close to $200,000 fundraising for Doolittle’s PAC and his re-election account, as well as CAT PAC, the committee run by what was formerly named the Conservative Action Team (and is now known as the Republican Study Committee).

Julie Doolittle and Sierra Dominion took another $38,000 in fees from Doolittle’s 527 account from 2000 to 2002.

Throughout his career, Doolittle has long been a staunch opponent of limits on campaign contributions, pushing instead for a lifting of all federal limits on donations while increasing disclosure and transparency. Such a plan would also have the practical effect of increasing the amount of commissions his wife could earn by raising money for him.

Beyond lifting those limits, Doolittle also has called in the past for a relaxation of other fundraising restrictions.

The Californian’s 1991 list of proposals also called for House Administration to “authorize making fundraising phone calls from the office” and to “allow use of campaign funds to reimburse government for incidental non-government use of equipment such as automobiles, telephones, fax machines, and copy machines, etc., to pay for lunches in House Restaurant, and to pay for equipment, furniture, and decorations in House offices.”

Those proposals were never implemented, and Doolittle apparently never sought to resuscitate them. But his 1991 effort to garner a daily stipend for Members was only his first try on that issue.

In 1999, Doolittle tried again — and failed — to round up support from his colleagues for a per-diem plan. In that case he teamed up with then-House Administration Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to push for giving Members $125 or $150 per day tax-free to cover living expenses. If the program had been in place in 1998, it would have meant essentially a $15,000 to $18,000 raise for lawmakers.

Doolittle and a handful of colleagues, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), made another effort in 2001 to initiate a per diem, this time advocating $165 for every day the House was in session. Once again, the plan was scuttled by House leaders from both parties worried about the public relations fallout from such a move.

Doolittle repeatedly has declined over the years to discuss his advocacy of a per diem for Members.

On the travel front, Doolittle has taken $69,000 worth of privately funded trips since 2000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, though the site’s overall rankings show that total is only the 83rd most among lawmakers in that period.

In February 2005, Doolittle took himself and his daughter, Courtney, on a $29,300 intercontinental jaunt financed by two associations established by Ed Buckham, the former chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). From Feb. 19 to Feb. 23, Doolittle and his daughter were in Seoul on an “educational/fact finding” trip sponsored by the Korean-US Exchange Council, a group that was created in party by Buckham’s Alexander Strategy Group.

Doolittle then flew from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur, for a five-day visit to Malaysia along with Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), paid for by the United States-Malaysia Exchange Association, another group with ties to Buckham and the ASG.

The trip to Korea cost a total of $13,900, and the total for Malaysia was $15,400. That trip came just two weeks before media reports questioned the propriety of KORUSEC paying for the trips, since it was registered at the time as a foreign agent with the Justice Department.

Later in 2005, Courtney Doolittle came along with her father on another privately funded trip, this one to Israel and financed by the American Israel Education Foundation. Total cost for the one-week trip: $16,788.

In addition to the $8,100 in airfare for the two Doolittles, they rang up more than $5,000 in lodging expenses, according to travel records with the House Clerk.

They also charged the foundation about $2,500 for unspecified “security costs, guides, tips, entrance fees,” the forms show.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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