Two-career marriages mean members of Congress have a new ethics problem -- their spouses.

No longer does the congressional wife sit at home pouring tea for other wives. The congressional "wife" may now be a congressional husband, and spouses of both sexes come to Washington with political savvy -- in some cases professional backgrounds -- that propel them into the city's second most prominent profession -- lobbying.

Most of the spouses who make a living as lobbyists claim they dutifully steer clear of professional pillow talk, but it's hard to imagine dinner table conversation that doesn't mention either spouse's workday.

Take Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). He is a leading advocate for farmers and has considerable clout on agricultural issues through the Senate committees on which he sits. His wife, Ruth, is a lawyer specializing in agriculture. She does some lobbying and represents clients in the farming business.

Ruth Harkin told our associate Scott Sleek that nobody in her law firm -- Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld -- lobbies her husband. Maybe not, but they have done him a whopper of a favor. The law firm represented Sen. Harkin in a libel suit. He still owes the firm $162,000, and the firm doesn't seem to be in any hurry to collect.

Akin, Gump defended Harkin in the suit arising from his 1984 campaign. An aide to his opponent sued Harkin for libel when Harkin issued a press release accusing the aide of improper campaign activities. Harkin won the suit.

The senator insists he'll pay the legal fees, but the way he plans to do it is raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Harkin opened a trust fund and is soliciting contributions to pay the bill. As a bow in the direction of propriety, Harkin says he won't take money until after the November election.

Harkin said he consulted the Senate ethics committee all along the way and got approval, but the question remains: Should a senator be in hock to a lobbying group, especially one that employs his wife and whose attorneys have given him generous campaign contributions?

Harkin isn't the only lawmaker with a working spouse, but some are more careful to avoid the appearance of influence peddling. Anne Bingaman, wife of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), is a lawyer with a big law firm that also lobbies. But Anne Bingaman sticks to the legal work and doesn't lobby.

The firm handles issues that lap over into Bingaman's committee work in the Senate, but so far the couple has been able to avoid questionable entanglements.

That isn't easy. The temptation to cash in on family ties is strong. Pam Kostmayer, who is legally separated from her husband, Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), says she has experienced it firsthand. Her communications firm helps clients who have an issue to push before Congress. But instead of directly lobbying Congress, the firm stirs up grass-roots support in a congressional district and gets voters to pressure their representative. She said he has rejected potential clients who have come to her hoping for inroads with her husband.