Lawmakers Reap Rewards from Influence Peddling
Policy + Politics

Lawmakers Reap Rewards from Influence Peddling

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Lawmakers often complain they don’t spend enough time with their families because of their hectic schedules of committee hearings, floor votes, speeches, campaigning and fundraising. But by exploiting their considerable influence in Washington, scores of House members have quietly feathered their family nests with lucrative jobs, perks and travel reimbursements that add up to big bucks.

A new study by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) of House members found 248 examples of members using their positions to enrich relatives or themselves, and almost all of it apparently was done legally. Some of those cited in the study, entitled a “Family Affair,’ are well known lawmakers, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican  presidential candidate, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) a member of the House Financial Services Committee.

“This report shows lawmakers still haven’t learned it is wrong to trade on their positions as elected leaders to benefit themselves and their families,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Conduct like this reinforces the widely held view that members of Congress are more interested in enriching themselves than in public service."

By the lights of most Americans, members of Congress are well compensated. Most Representatives and Senators receive an annual salary of $174,000; they and their families are covered by federal health insurance and life insurance programs and get generous retirement benefits. Members may also deduct up to $3,000 a year in living expenses from their tax obligations.

But that is only the beginning. Lawmakers and their families also benefit from generous official office accounts and campaign war chests to supplement their income and defray numerous expenses they incur in Washington and back home. Nepotism is hardly a new concept on Capitol Hill, and over the years lawmakers’ spouses, children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews have traded on their politically prominent positions to land well-paying jobs.

The study by CREW, a non-profit  government ethics watchdog, documents that these practices are far more prevalent than many Americans might assume. And taken together, they add millions of dollars a year in income to politically powerful or well-connected families. This comes at a time when members of Congress are also being criticized by the news media and ethics groups for lining their pockets with the bounty from insider stock and securities trading.

After conducting a deep dive into House office and campaign spending accounts and lobbying records for the past two election cycles, here’s what CREW found:

    • 82 members (40 Democrats and 42 Republicans) paid family members through their congressional offices, campaign committees and political action committees (PACs).
    • 44 members (20 Democrats and 24 Republicans) have family members who lobby or are employed in government affairs.
    • 90 members (42 Democrats and 48 Republicans) have paid a family business, employer, or associated nonprofit.
    • 20 members (13 Democrats and 7 Republicans) used their campaign money to contribute to a family member’s political campaign.
    • 14 members (6 Democrats and 8 Republicans) charged interest – often at an extraordinarily high interest rate--  on personal loans they made to their own campaigns;
    • 38 members (24 Democrats and 14 Republicans) earmarked federal funds  to a family business, employer, or associated nonprofit.

According to the study, the campaign of Ron Paul, the libertarian presidential candidate who frequently  complains about big government and excessive spending, paid six relatives salaries or fees, the most of any member.  The Texan’s  campaign paid salaries or fees totaling more than $300,000  to his daughter, brother, grandson, daughter’s mother in law, granddaughter and grandson-in law.

Jesse R. Benton, a Paul presidential campaign spokesman, didn’t dispute the specific details of the report, but complained that the findings were  “skewed and ridiculous.”

“This so-called report is a sad attempt by a group of Beltway insiders trying to grab cheap headlines,” Benton told The Fiscal Times “Dr. Paul's campaigns and organizations have raised over $100 million dollars during the last five years, and employed many hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  Family members have received a tiny fraction of one percent of jobs and salaries. Everything that Dr. Paul does in Politics is 100 percent above board and any insinuation otherwise is completely off base.”

McKeon , the House Armed Services Committee chief, paid a total of $238,438 to his wife, Patricia, who has served as his campaign treasurer, according to the report. Patricia McKeon was the highest-paid staffer on the campaign.  McKeon’s office didn’t respond to a query about the report
Among other findings: Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., paid his sister’s law office $292,557 in fees. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.,  paid his wife $512,293 to work in his congressional office.

Three House members - Bill Cassidy, R-La.,  Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Tim Walz, D-Minn., reimbursed themselves and their wives for babysitting costs, an expense those without access to campaign funds typically pay out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., loaned her campaign $150,000 in 1998 and collected more than $94,000 in interest during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles alone, the report stated. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, loaned her campaign $125,000 and collected more than $31,000 in interest. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) loaned his campaign $309,000 and has so far collected nearly $29,000 in interest..

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., has used campaign funds for what CREW deemed  “questionable expenses” such as taking his family to a wedding  in 2011 at a luxury resort in Scotland.  Democratic Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes’  reimbursements to himself and family members totaled more than $400,000 over the two election cycles. One entry showed he reimbursed his niece, a campaign staff member, for charitable donations. His expenses also included thousands of dollars in airplane tickets and meals.

Finally, Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) reimbursed himself more than $150,000, including more than $30,000 in hotel bills, according to the report. His lodging ran the gamut from Hampton Inns to expensive five-star resorts in Miami and Athens, Greece.