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Senate’s ban on lobbying spouses is limited

Ethics legislation designed to prevent senators’ spouses from lobbying the Senate seems to have a limited reach, allowing some husbands and wives to go about their business.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ethics legislation designed to prevent senators’ spouses from lobbying the Senate seems to have a limited reach, allowing some husbands and wives to go about their business.

In fact, the legislation appears to affect the spouse of only one lawmaker—Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Conrad’s wife, Lucy Calautti, is a top lobbyist for Major League Baseball and is also affiliated with the firm Baker Hostetler. She became a lobbyist after her 1987 marriage to Conrad, disqualifying her from an exception in the bill that would allow some Senate spouses to continue lobbying.

The provision, added by amendment into a larger ethics overhaul bill passed by the Senate last month, aims to prevent Senate spouses from lobbying the Senate. But it has an exception allowing those who became lobbyists at least one year before their marriage or their spouse’s election to still lobby the chamber.

That exception applied to several Senate spouses, including the wife of Conrad’s North Dakota colleague, Democrat Byron Dorgan. Kimberly Dorgan is executive vice president of federal relations at the American Council of Life Insurers, and has in the past registered to lobby the Senate along with others at her organization.

Dorgan first became a lobbyist in the early 1980s, a few years before she and Byron Dorgan were married.

Also exempt is Bob Dole, former Senate Majority Leader and husband of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. He became a lobbyist before his wife was elected in 2002.

Two groups that follow lobbying as a family business said they believe that Calautti is the only spouse who will be affected by the Senate legislation.

“Kent Conrad is the only person, according to my records, who is going to be affected,” said Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist at Public Citizen.

“From what we can tell right now, it looks like this would apply to just one lawmaker, and that’s Sen. Kent Conrad,” said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation. “It’s a little bit strange.”

Calautti declined to comment on the bill, which will force her to scale back her activities if it becomes law.

As a lobbyist for major league baseball, she recently pushed, successfully, to reclassify foreign minor leaguers’ visa status from temporary seasonal workers to internationally recognized athletes—a move that will allow the league to bring in more foreign ballplayers.

Last year, she was registered with the Senate Office of Public Records as lobbying the House and Senate on drug and steroid issues, copyright issues and cable and satellite issues affecting major league baseball. Calautti would still be able to lobby the House if the ethics bill is signed into law.

Conrad also declined to comment until the bill moves through Congress.

Allison of the Sunlight Foundation says the exception allowing some spouses to continue lobbying shows “that there’s a part of (the Senate) that’s saying, ‘Let’s be realistic, this is Washington after all.’”

Those sorts of acknowledgments have frustrated voters, Allison said.

The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has maintained that he did not keep track of who would be affected by the legislation. During debate on the bill, he said on the Senate floor that he could see an argument for getting rid of all exceptions, but he “tried to bend over backward for what I considered any legitimate argument.”

At the same time, Vitter had harsh words for those engaging in the practice, speaking of the “pernicious” opportunity “for moneyed interests, special interests, to write checks directly into the family bank account of a member through the lobbyist spouse.”

“It is simply a bribe by another name because it is a conduit to send significant amounts of money to the family bank account—the same family bank account that the member, of course, lives on and relies on and enjoys,” Vitter said.

Public Citizen’s Holman says the amendment is a good one, because it would prevent future spouses from becoming lobbyists after their husbands or wives are elected. It would be unfair to ask spouses who are already lobbying to close up shop, he said. But he says he wishes the legislation had gone further to include all family members.

“It’s unfair that family members try cashing in on the electoral success of their spouse or father or mother,” Holman said. “It provides an easy avenue for special interests to try and buy favors with the officeholder by pumping in a great deal of money to the office of the family member.”