And a Pennsylvania congressman co-sponsored a natural gas bill as Exxon Mobil negotiated a deal that paid millions for his wife’s shares in two natural gas companies founded by her great-great-grandfather.
Those lawmakers were among 73 members of Congress who have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation in recent years that could benefit businesses or industries in which either they or their family members are involved or invested, according to a Washington Post analysis. The findings emerge from an examination by The Post of financial disclosure forms and public records for all 535 members of the House and Senate.
The practice is both legal and permitted under the ethics rules that Congress has written for itself, which allow lawmakers to take actions that benefit themselves or their families except when they are the lone beneficiaries. The financial disclosure system Congress has implemented also does not require the legislators to identify potential conflicts at the time that they take official actions that intersect or overlap with their investments.
Members of Congress contact the House and Senate ethics offices thousands of times each year to seek legal advice on a range of activities, including their work on legislation that might pose a conflict. Between 2007 and 2011, lawyers for the two committees issued at least 2,800 written opinions to lawmakers, sent 6,500 e-mails containing advice and provided guidance over the phone 40,000 times, according to records kept by the two committees.
The committees rarely discipline their own, instead providing advisory opinions that generally give support and justification to lawmakers who take actions that intersect with their personal financial holdings, according to interviews with nearly a dozen ethics experts and government watchdog groups. And though Congress has required top executive branch officials to divest themselves of assets that may present a conflict, lawmakers have not asked the same of themselves.
Congressional ethics experts say reforms are needed.
Harvard public policy professor Dennis Thompson said lawmakers should refrain from having narrowly focused legislative agendas that align with their personal investments. Disclosure should also be broadened, he said, so the public is notified by a lawmaker of potential conflicts at the time they are taking official actions, including when bills are introduced.
“Ethics rules are supposed to make things clear and transparent,” Thompson said. “They should not require the public or the media to go digging around to make the connections.”
The legislators, in interviews and through spokesmen, said they saw no conflicts between their legislative actions and holdings. They added that they have a duty to advocate for their constituents, even when those interests align with their own.