When Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) rose to the Senate floor last summer and passionately argued for keeping the federal estate tax, he left one person with an interest in retaining the tax unmentioned.
The multibillion-dollar life-insurance industry, which was fighting to preserve the tax because life insurers have a lucrative business selling policies and annuities to Americans for estate planning, has employed Dorgan's wife as a lobbyist since 1999.
A few months earlier, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) had pleaded for restraint as she urged colleagues to avoid overreacting to the news that the Bush administration had let a United Arab Emirates company take over operations at six U.S. ports. At the same time, her husband, Robert J. Dole, a former senator and presidential nominee, was registered to lobby for that company and was advising it on how to save the deal from the political firestorm.
At least half a dozen congressional spouses have jobs as registered lobbyists and several more are connected with lobbying firms, but reining in the practice to prevent potential conflicts or the appearance of them has not been a priority among congressional leaders. Even modest proposals such as banning wives and husbands from lobbying their spouses or using their spouses' floor privileges for lobbying have gone nowhere.
Democrats made ethics reform a major issue in last fall's congressional elections, but the ethics package the House approved earlier this month didn't address the issue and neither did the one proposed by Senate Democrats. Last week, however, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) proposed banning spouses of senators from lobbying any part of the chamber. The lone exception is for spouses who were lobbying at least one year before their husband or wife was elected.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the legislation as soon as today. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called Vitter and said he would support the proposal with one caveat: It should exempt spouses who are already lobbyists.
"As long as it is not retroactive, Senator Reid supports efforts to ban spouses of sitting members from lobbying in the future," spokesman Jim Manley said. Vitter said he will not support Reid's proposal. "I think this goes to one of the fundamental issues in this whole debate and that is officeholders using their office to increase their personal and family income. It doesn't get any more basic than that," Vitter said.
‘All the more exclusive’
Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that studies political donations and ethics in Washington, said that if senators decide that a lobbying ban is necessary, it makes no sense to exempt current spouses.
"If there is a problem here, it is that family members can get access to lawmakers that other people don't. And if they exempt the current spouses, then they are making it all the more exclusive. Those family members will seem all the more special."
Vitter's legislation does not apply to the House. It also does not address lawmakers' siblings and children, another growth area in lobbying. Vitter said he wanted to make the plan broader but was not assured of a vote, so he scaled it back to Senate spouses.
Elected to the Senate in 2004, Vitter took an initial foray into ethics reform more than a year ago, proposing the spousal lobbying ban as well as the end of large tribal donations like those seen in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. But his plans went nowhere when his own party was in charge.
Vitter had garnered scrutiny during the scandal when it was learned that, as a House member in 2002, he had written a letter opposing a casino for an Indian tribe that rivaled Abramoff's clients. Vitter had taken donations from Abramoff's tribal clients but had refunded the money. He said he always has opposed gambling.
With Democrats in control of Congress and promising broad ethics reform, Vitter tried again. Last week the Senate rejected another of his proposals -- one to end the practice of lawmakers hiring relatives and paying them with Senate office, campaign or political action committee money.
Typically, according to their offices, those senators with lobbyist-spouses do not let their spouses lobby them or their staff personally. The rest of the Senate and Congress, however, is usually fair game.
Robert Dole's office said that while he registered to lobby for DP World, he never contacted the Senate and instead focused on giving advice. Nonetheless, his work during the political firestorm over port security helped earn his firm $320,000 in the first half of 2006, records show.
Kimberly Olson Dorgan is registered as a lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurers and worked on several issues, including the estate tax. She now has moved into an executive job. Barry Piatt, a spokesman for Byron Dorgan, said that the senator long opposed repealing the estate tax, that his position was consistent with that of most Democrats and that his wife's job had no bearing.
Piatt noted that Dorgan once was at odds with his wife's lobby when he supported exempting income under $10 million from the estate tax.
Though the Dorgans built a voluntary wall between them, it doesn't extend to the senator's reelection campaign. His wife's lobbying group gave the senator's campaign $2,000 from its political action committee in 2004. And other life insurers have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Dorgan's campaign, Federal Election Commission records show.
Among the other senators with lobbyist wives are Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
Catherine A. Stevens has been a registered lobbyist for the Washington firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, whose past clients include media giant Bertelsmann AG and the famed King Ranch in Texas, lobbying records show. She did not return calls to her office seeking comment.
Lucy Calautti, Conrad's wife and a former chief of staff to Dorgan, is registered to lobby for Major League Baseball's commissioner's office, which paid her firm at least $360,000 in the first half of 2006, according to the most recent lobbying reports on record with the Senate. She did not return calls to her office seeking comment. Conrad spokesman Chris Thorne said that the senator and his wife have a firm rule prohibiting her from lobbying his Senate office and staff.
On the House side, Abigail Blunt, the wife of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has lobbied for years for Altria Group, the parent company for Kraft Foods and tobacco firm Philip Morris. The couple were married in 2003 and decided about a year ago that Abigail would no longer lobby any part of the House, Blunt's office said yesterday. And Jennifer LaTourette, the wife of Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), has been registered in recent years to lobby for several interests, including health-care companies and Cleveland's port authority.
Other congressional spouses have ties to lobbying even though they aren't formally registered in Washington. Ray Hutchison, the husband of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), works at the Vinson & Elkins firm, whose lobbying clients have included corporate giants such as 7-Eleven, Goldman Sachs and Halliburton.
Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin's wife, Loretta Durbin, runs a lobbying firm called Government Affairs Specialists. But Durbin's office said she limits her lobbying to their home state of Illinois and recuses herself from any federal matters that could affect her husband's work in the Senate.