By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
In the latest ripple of an ethics spat gripping Congress, the House yesterday passed a bipartisan bill that bans lawmakers from paying their spouses for campaign work.
The measure, passed on a voice vote, was sponsored by Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Michael N. Castle (R-Del.). It would not bar other family members from working on a lawmaker's campaign but would require disclosure.
The vote follows a study released last month by the liberal-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that found that nearly 100 chairmen and ranking minority members of House committees used their roles to benefit their families, including employing spouses and other kin for campaign or consulting work.
Schiff originally conceived of the measure as an amendment to an ethics bill passed in May, then decided to offer it separately. "Specifically I was concerned about cases where a spouse was being paid on a commission basis," he said, describing an arrangement made and later discontinued by Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), who paid his wife, Julie, a portion of the donations she brought in.
By making such agreements, Schiff said: "You're essentially telling a donor, 'Part of what you give to my campaign, you give to me.' That's inherently a conflict."
Schiff said he is "reaching out" to find sponsors for a Senate version of the bill.
The study found that over the past five years, dozens of House lawmakers employed their spouses for campaign work. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) put his wife, three children, two daughters-in-law and a sister-in-law on the campaign payroll in recent years. Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) gave $2,000 from her campaign chest to her husband to help finance his unsuccessful run for the New York City Council in 2002. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has paid more than $280,000 in fees to a company in which her husband had a financial interest.
Lawmakers generally defend the arrangements, saying, as Lofgren did, that their spouses are skilled in the work and have other clients. Others liken the ties to a family business, in which relatives share in the work and the benefits.
Yesterday's vote came as Democratic leaders struggle to move a key ethics bill. The bill has been stalled for weeks by partisan bickering and qualms over a provision requiring lobbyists to disclose their "bundling" of multiple campaign checks for lawmakers. Senate Republicans have for weeks blocked efforts to reconcile the House and Senate versions, complicating Democrats' effort to send the measure to the president before the August recess.
Castle said he is confident that his bill will not meet the same fate because "this is a little cleaner, a little crisper, a little simpler."