All in the Family

When blood and marriage bind lobbyists and politicians

Washington—probably the least discussed and most potent weapon in Capital politics is the Washington spouse. While the media focuses on the extramarital liaisons of politicians in high places, the real action is carried out under the sanctity of marriage vows. Wives of Congressmembers who have jobs as lobbyists carry real clout (as do their sons, daughters, and siblings). Although politicians take pains to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, this city is generally accepting of these family ties, which tend to be viewed more as a community of interests.

Take Linda Daschle, wife of the popular South Dakota senator, Tom Daschle. Linda is a lobbyist for Northwest Airlines, while Tom, the Senate Minority Leader, is the number one recipient of campaign contributions from commercial airlines. In the current election cycle Daschle has received some $53,250 in contributions from the airline industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP)—$38,500 of which has come from sources associated with Northwest. In 1992, before Linda joined the airline (she started in February of last year), and before she became deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (her position between 1993 and 1997), Tom received a mere $2500 from Northwest-related sources.

There are no real laws against lobbying by a congressmember's family or other intimate, unless, of course, there is a provable conflict of interest. "Family members are not subject to special rules," explains Jennifer Shecter of the CRP. But at the very least, critics insist, these relationships pose an appearance of conflict—which can be problematic in its own right. "It's not a question of legality or illegality, of right and wrong," says Shecter. "But it gives the appearance of an inherent conflict of interest."

That inherent conflict appears even stronger, say the critics, in light of the fact that most family lobbyists possess a unique level of access. The benefits of being, say, a congressional spouse—close friendships with various members of Congress, instant respect on the Hill, not to mention round-the-clock access to at least one member—can be particularly helpful to a lobbyist.

And it's not just spouses who try to take advantage of the close relations that are bound by family ties. Randy Delay, brother of House Majority Whip Tom Delay, recently tried to lobby his sibling on behalf of an interstate highway project. Tom responded to critics by saying he would treat his brother like any other lobbyist—at arm's length.

Ted Stevens, Alaska's powerful Republican senator, has been lobbied by his son, Ben. The young Stevens represents corporate and governmental affairs in the 49th state. Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, also has a lobbyist son. And Florida Republican John Mica has a younger brother, Dan—himself a former representative—who is also an active lobbyist.

Despite the obvious favorable circumstances, some family lobbyists insist they have no advantages. "There are people who still don't return my calls, no matter who my husband is," says Kimberly Olson Dorgan, wife of North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, and legislative director for McDermott, Will & Emery.

But the appearance of conflict is still hard to escape. Byron is one of the Senate's international tax experts, having spent much of his public career pinpointing loopholes in the tax code where special interests evade paying their fair share, especially where they pertain to multinational corporations. Kimberly's firm represents foreign governments who conceivably have an interest in American tax policies. But Kimberly says she does her best to keep her distance. "I do not represent any foreign countries or foreign groups. That is one of my self-imposed restrictions so as not to overlap with Byron."

The situation can sometimes be more ambiguous, as in the case of Michigan congressman John Dingell and his wife Debbie, who works for General Motors. Ms. Dingell's ties to GM are family-related: "I am a granddaughter of one of the Fisher Brothers, founders of GM." Debbie does her best to steer clear of the obvious conflict between a GM executive and a Detroit congressman—she is not an official lobbyist for the automobile giant and a GM lawyer constantly reviews her duties, checking out how things will be perceived.

Still, Ms. Dingell is widely viewed as an articulate representative of GM in the capital. At the same time, her husband, a member of the Democratic leadership, has long been labeled by critics of the automaker as being overly attentive to the car industry. So, while Debbie tries to emphasize the differences between herself and her husband—"John sits on the NRA board and we disagree very much over gun issues"—the two are very much in alignment on matters that pertain to GM.

Research: Mark Maggiotto

 
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