Ban on Family Lobbying Eyed

Posted January 27, 2004 at 6:18pm

The top Senate Democrat on the Ethics Committee is pushing for a broad review of the chamber’s lobbying rules, an overhaul that could eventually lead to a formal ban on Senators’ family members lobbying their offices.

Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has himself endured much scrutiny for his sons’ lobbying efforts, said Tuesday that he has asked the panel’s chairman, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), to consider the lobbying review and hinted that he may seek a top-to-bottom study of ethics rules.

“There are a lot of things we need to talk about,” said Reid, the vice chairman of the evenly divided six-member panel.

Voinovich declined to say whether he would endorse such a wide-ranging review of the Ethics Manual, citing the traditionally close-to-the-vest nature of the committee. “I’m not going to discuss what my conversations were or were not with Senator Reid,” he said Tuesday.

While ethics rules are only sporadically revamped, the section on family members lobbying Senators has remained particularly vague even as the practice of Members’ spouses and children taking lucrative six-figure lobbying jobs has mushroomed in recent years.

A review by the Los Angeles Times published in July 2003 found that 17 Senators and 11 House Members had family members who are registered lobbyists or work in consulting for government relations offices. A Roll Call article on the practice, published two years ago, uncovered at least 22 Members of Congress whose spouses, children or in-laws were currently employed or recently registered as lobbyists in Washington or in their respective states.

Reid’s proposal would only cover the Senate, while on the House side Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has also talked about a wide-ranging review of the rules, although it’s unclear whether familial lobbying would be covered in the review.

Ethics watchdogs warned the devil would be in the details as to how any rewrite of the rules would be accomplished, pointing in particular to the question of whether committee staff overseen by Senators would be covered by such a ban.

However, it would be hard to be any less clear than the current rules, watchdogs say. According to the 2003 edition of the Senate Ethics Manual, “The decision on whether a spouse may lobby the Senate is generally a decision for the Senator and his or her spouse, giving due regard to the potential reflection upon the Senate.”

The manual also notes that any compensated lobbying employment by a spouse would be required to be reported on the Senator’s annual financial disclosure form — although that amount would only have to indicate if the spouse earned $1,000 or more, not the specific salary for the given year.

“Given the heightened public interest in the professional activities of spouses of Members, the Committee hopes that spouses, as well as Members, will conduct their professional and business activities so as not to reflect adversely upon the Senate as an institution,” the manual notes.

With the practice so widespread — and each Senator generally applying his or her own rules regarding family members’ lobbying practices — it’s unclear whether Reid could muster the internal support needed for such a prohibition.

Even Senators whose children don’t directly lobby them might be skittish about writing new rules limiting their family members’ work provisions. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whose son Scott has been lobbying for several years on pharmaceutical and asbestos issues, said his son does not lobby him.

But Hatch indicated he would see no problem in having his son lobby him on any issue and that there is no reason to set up new rules because Senators should simply know whether something is right or wrong.

“If people are going to be dishonest, they’re going to be dishonest,” he said. “You get into trouble when you start setting rules for people who aren’t in the Senate.”

Reid declined to say what exactly he’s pushing Voinovich to do, but a statement made clear that the issue of family members and lobbying is of particular interest.

“A year and a half ago I voluntarily tightened my office rules pertaining to lobbying practices to prevent any appearance of impropriety. I believe a Senate-wide review of policies that relate to all current lobbying practices is in order and have conveyed that to the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee,” Reid said in his statement.

That revision in office policy came in October 2002, after Reid was questioned by the Los Angeles Times about the lobbying activities of his youngest son, Key Reid, and his son-in-law, Steve Barringer. Susan McCue, Reid’s chief of staff, then issued a directive forbidding the duo to lobby Reid’s personal office or his leadership office, creating a “firewall” that could “prevent the appearance of impropriety.”

Key Reid in late 2001 began running the day-to-day affairs of Lionel Sawyer and Collins’ Washington lobbying office, with the part-time assistance of former Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.).

From Jan. 1, 2002, through the first half of 2003, Key Reid’s firm collected at least $520,000 in lobbying revenue, according to a review of lobbying records filed with the Senate. He left the firm late last year and returned to Las Vegas, where he is a counsel for the Greenspun Media Corp., whose top executive, Brian Greenspun, is a longtime supporter of Sen. Reid.

Reid is far from alone, as many Congressional leaders in both parties can boast of a close relative or two in the lobbying profession.

In 2002, his final year as GOP leader, Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) son Chet, formerly a Domino’s Pizza chain operator in Kentucky, took up lobbying, about the same time the son of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Joshua, also began lobbying for a small firm.

Lott’s son didn’t file any lobbying reports for the first half of 2003, leaving it unclear whether he continued the practice after the Mississippi Republican’s fall from leadership. Hastert’s son jumped to a bigger firm last year, Podesta Mattoon, where the Speaker’s close adviser, Daniel Mattoon, is a name partner.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s wife, Linda Hall Daschle, has been a pre-eminent aviation lobbyist for the past half-dozen years, although she maintains a self-imposed rule forbidding any contact with the South Dakota Democrat’s staff or any Senate offices. The leader’s daughter-in-law, Jill Daschle, also recently registered as a lobbyist, although Daschle aides say she abides by a similar no-Senate ban on lobbying.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), also the President Pro Tempore of the chamber, has a son, Ben, who worked as a Washington lobbyist and is now a state legislator in Alaska and a part-time consultant with clients whose interests the Senator has supported.

In addition, Stevens’ wife, Catherine, does appropriations lobbying for her firm, Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw.

Stevens is also weathering something of a media storm resulting from an L.A. Times investigative report that revealed the chairman’s efforts to save a $450 million military contract for an Anchorage businessman who had previously made Sen. Stevens a partner in real estate deals that netted him at least $700,000.

It’s unclear whether the review Reid is pushing for would deal with the murky nature of outside income and investments that Senators have, some of which might not specifically deal with lobbying.

Voinovich and Reid would also have to come up with a specific definition for a lobbyist during their review. Some family members work in government relations or consulting, in ways that require Senate assistance but don’t require actually lobbying registration.

For instance, Ruth Harkin is a major executive with United Technologies in the military contractor’s Washington office, but the wife of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) does not specifically lobby.

And the existing provisions on lobbying, while hardly binding, address only the activities of a spouse — not the children or other immediate relatives of Senators. Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, noted that any ban on lobbying contacts by family members would have to be comprehensive, applying not only to the personal Senate offices but also to the committees where Senators serve.

“Any bit helps. But it is not much of a step forward unless it includes committee offices too,” Ruskin said. “If it looks like a Senator’s relatives are aggressively taking advantage of their ties to the Senator, then that makes the entire Senate look bad.”

Voinovich indicated that a lot of these issues are being discussed by himself and Reid. “We’re constantly looking at things,” he said. “We’re aware of everything that’s going on.”