The bid by Sen. David Vitter to force lawmakers’ relatives off their campaign and political action committee payrolls ran into a wall of opposition from a majority of his colleagues Wednesday night.
Senators voted to kill an amendment from the Louisiana Republican that would have kept close family of Members of Congress off the payrolls as the Senate accelerated its work on the ethics reform package.
Vitter will take another stab at making sure Congressional families don’t cash in on the power of their elected kin with a proposal to ban lawmakers’ spouses from getting lobbying jobs.
Taken together, the proposals aim at zeroing out two sources that have provided millions of dollars in supplemental income for lawmakers’ households in recent years.
“This is not a solution waiting for a problem,” Vitter said of his proposal, before Senators voted 54-41 to table the amendment. “This has clearly been abused in the past. It has clearly been a conduit for Members to gain family income through entities they control.”
Senators from both parties objected, however, saying Vitter’s amendment was out of order in a debate about lobbying and ethics. Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the proposal instead dealt with campaign finance, further suggesting the phenomenon it addresses does not exist in the Senate. “I know of no problems related to this issue in this house,” she said.
But Feinstein’s home-state colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), in recent years has paid $130,000 from her leadership PAC to a political consulting confirmed directed by her son, according to disclosure records.
She is not alone. Lawmakers have increasingly turned to their own families to staff their campaigns, and consult and fundraise for their leadership PACs. The practice has drawn criticism from government watchdog groups that contend it is a thinly disguised ploy to use campaign dollars to pad the family bank account with contributions from wealthy donors and lobbyists.
In the last election cycle alone, at least 19 House lawmakers’ spouses collected more than $600,000 in fees from their partners’ campaign accounts, according to a review by the Sunlight Foundation. That number does not count payments made from leadership PACs, nor does it include money collected by other family members besides spouses.
“It raises a whole series of problems and issues that would be better if taken off the table,” said Gary Kalman, of U.S. PIRG. “You’re talking about conflicts of interest — about issues of nepotism, and whether the best people are working on the campaigns, or if this is simply a way to funnel money to family members.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) — whose wife, Kathy, collected more than $70,000 last cycle for work on his campaign — defended the practice, calling his wife overqualified for the job.
“She and I could both be making a lot more money elsewhere if we were not committed to helping our district and country,” Gohmert said in a statement. “Kathy is my closest ally, best friend and most trusted adviser all in one. There is simply no better person to fill her role.”
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) similarly employs his wife, Margaret, paying her $14,700 in salary in 2005 to manage his re-election campaign.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.