1. Archive

All in the family

Published Sep. 1, 2005

It ought to be a crime, but it's not even unethical by Washington standards.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that at least 28 members of Congress have children, spouses or other close relatives who lobby or work as consultants, mostly in Washington. Many of these relatives aren't qualified for the work they perform. For example, Chet Lott, son of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., ran a string of pizza franchises and played polo prior to being hired as a congressional lobbyist for BellSouth. Corporate interests who hire Chet Lott aren't looking for experience and expertise; they're looking for connections.

As campaign finance regulations have tightened, corporations and interest groups have gone searching for other ways to buy their way into the offices on Capitol Hill. Hiring a lawmaker's relative has proved to be an effective way to gain access and influence votes. The Los Angeles Times reported that senators and congressmen have repeatedly sponsored and supported legislation pushed by organizations that employ their relatives. These conflicts of interest are unethical, but they're legal. Only Congress has the power to change that, but neither chamber has plans to ban lawmakers' relatives from lobbying.

The members of Congress featured in the investigation expressed no qualms about their sons, daughters and spouses trying to influence legislation. Some don't allow their relatives to lobby them directly, and many insist their relatives have no substantial influence over their actions.

For example, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he rarely discusses legislation with his four sons and son-in-law who lobby. Yet Reid successfully pushed legislation in 2002 that opened tens of thousands of acres of federal land for private development by none other than his sons' employers. The legislation was chock full of jargon, and Reid never mentioned the companies that stood to benefit or his sons' connections to them.

The same is true for other lawmakers, including Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., whose sons lobby for BellSouth. Breaux and Tauzin have sponsored legislation to loosen regulations on the so-called Baby Bells, including BellSouth, and have pressured the Federal Communications Commission to ease its restrictions. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., plays an active role in technology issues, while his son actively lobbies on the same issues. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has consistently fought regulations on herbal stimulants such as ephedra. Meanwhile, the supplements industry has spent nearly $2-million with lobbying firms employing Hatch's son. And the "coincidences" go on.

This may be the way Washington works, but it still smells to high heaven. Lobbyists have a place in our democratic system of government, but this "all in the family" approach is unacceptable. It should be illegal.