Separated

Posted May 15, 2007 at 3:24pm

Tomorrow, the House Judiciary Committee will mark up a long-awaited ethics and lobbying reform package. The final shape of the legislation remains unclear, but, at the very least, Democrats are finally moving forward on a promise they made repeatedly during the 2006 campaign to change the way the chamber does business.

Separately, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) has of late gone on the offensive against the Justice Department and the FBI for the way they have conducted their investigation into his and his wife Julie’s ties to now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

What do these two events — the progress of the reform legislation and the investigation of the Doolittles — have in common? On the surface not much, except that they remind us of what is not expected to be included in the House ethics bill but we believe should be — a federal ban on lawmakers putting their spouses on their campaign or political action committee payrolls.

At the moment, Julie Doolittle appears to be receiving federal scrutiny not because of any work she did for her husband but rather for event-planning work she did for Abramoff, specifically for his lobbying firm and a nonprofit he ran. But she also has drawn plenty of negative attention — particularly during last year’s campaign — for having been her husband’s chief fundraiser, both for his re-election account and for his leadership PAC. In the 2006 cycle alone, according to numbers compiled by CQ PoliticalMoneyLine, Julie Doolittle raked in close to $180,000 in fees from those two committees, more than matching her husband’s Congressional salary.

Unfortunately, the Doolittles’ arrangement is not unique. Imprisoned ex-Rep. Bob Ney’s (R-Ohio) campaign employed his wife. Then-Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) paid his wife more than $3,000 a month even after he had announced his retirement in 2004 and had essentially stopped raising money. And dozens of other Members, Republicans and Democrats, have put their spouses on the campaign payroll in recent years.

Why is this a problem? On a substantive level, it may not be. The majority of Congressional spouses working under this arrangement presumably earn their keep, helping lawmakers administer and raise money for their re-elections.

But there is an unavoidable flaw in such husband-and-wife teams, particularly in the case of Doolittle, who paid his wife a 15 percent commission for the money she raised. In that circumstance, when a donor gives money to the Member’s campaign, he or she is effectively putting money directly in that Member’s wallet. A campaign contributor handing Julie Doolittle a check for $1,000 would know that $150 of that total would personally enrich the Doolittles. And that is unacceptable.

We have no desire to deprive Congressional spouses of their right to earn a living. Nor would we prevent husbands and wives from helping their spouses get re-elected. But we are sure there are plenty of other career choices spouses can make that wouldn’t raise questions about whether political donors are trying to personally enrich Members. And we feel confident that if spouses want to help lawmakers’ campaigns without raising suspicions, they can do what thousands of regular people do every election when they want to help a campaign they believe in — volunteer.