Some members of Congress send tax dollars to companies, colleges and community groups where their spouses, children and parents work as salaried employees, lobbyists or board members, according to an examination of federal disclosure forms and local public records by The Washington Post.
A U.S. senator from South Dakota helped add millions to a Pentagon program his wife evaluated as a contract employee. A Washington congressman boosted the budget of an environmental group that his son ran as executive director. A Texas congresswoman guided millions to a university where her husband served as a vice president.
Those three members are among 16 who have taken actions that aided entities connected to their immediate families. The findings stem from an examination by The Post of all 535 members of the House and Senate, comparing their financial disclosure forms with thousands of public records. The examination uncovered a broad range of connections between the public and private lives of the nation’s lawmakers.
(View the full results of the Post investigation.)
Several of the cases have received previous media attention, raised by local newspapers or campaign opponents, but the practice has continued unabated, The Post found.
Lawmakers said in interviews that the actions they took were not intended to directly benefit their relatives or themselves. Instead, they say, the largesse was meant to assist corporations, educational programs and community organizations that employ, educate and help residents in their congressional districts.
(Q&A transcript: The reporters discuss this series.)
In some cases, the lawmakers sought advice from congressional committees assigned to examine possible conflicts on Capitol Hill. The panels informed them that the practice of earmarking money to the workplaces of relatives is permissible, as long as tax dollars are not going directly to or solely benefitting their husbands, wives, sons or daughters. Several of the lawmakers also certified to congressional committees that neither they nor their immediate family members stood to benefit from the earmark in question.
Members of Congress have more leeway than executive branch officials or individuals in publicly held companies, who operate under stricter conflict-of-interest rules that generally prevent them from taking actions that might benefit businesses or institutions where their relatives work. The legislators set and enforce their own rules, giving themselves broad latitude to take steps that can end up directly benefiting their immediate family.
“The executive branch has far stricter ethics standards than Congress does — and Congress has set these standards,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit government watchdog group. “The executive branch can’t steer contracts or work to businesses where family members work. They can’t even own stock in industries that they oversee, unlike Congress. It’s complete hypocrisy.”
Members engaged in behavior that included directly funding programs run by their children, earmarking money to entities represented by their lobbyist relatives and sending tax dollars to colleges where their family members work or serve on boards of trustees.
Although members of Congress declared a two-year moratorium on earmarks last year, efforts to insert targeted spending provisions into bills continue. Lawmakers attempted to put 115 of the provisions worth $834 million into a House defense bill last year. The provisions were stripped from the bill after they became public late last year.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a leading critic of earmarks, said the efforts to amend the defense bill underscore how deeply committed Congress is to retaining its provincial spending practices. Last week, the Senate defeated a proposal co-sponsored by McCaskill and authored by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) that would have permanently banned earmarks. But the Senate extended the moratorium another year.
Before the moratorium went into effect, the ability of lawmakers to earmark tax dollars to specific programs and geographic locations was one of their most cherished political prerogatives. Since 2007, senators have required themselves to certify that neither they nor their “immediate” family members have any financial interests in the programs benefiting from their official actions. Under House rules, however, lawmakers are required to certify only that neither they nor their spouses hold a financial stake in their earmarks, not other members of their immediate families.