A relative problem for Congress

Memo to all those partisans who claim their party is better than the other guys: Your bubbles have been burst once again.

A new study by Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW), a non-partisan activist group, found that 72 members of Congress diverted some $5.1 million in campaign funds to their relatives, or companies owned by their relatives, over the past six years.

The list includes 41 Republicans and 31 Democrats.

The practice of putting your kin on your payroll is an old one in Washington. Former Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley hired his wife to be his chief of staff and other members put their girlfriends and boyfriends on the public dole. Rep. Dan Burton, the bombastic Republican from Indiana, put his mistress on both the public and campaign payroll at the same time – a practice he ended only after the Justice Department launched an investigation.

As CREW’s report so-clearly reveals, the practice of letting your relatives live large off campaign money is so widespread that a Democrat and Republican joined forces to introduce legislation to prevent Members of Congress from putting their spouses on the payroll.

Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Mike Castle, R-Del, know the bill doesn’t stand much a chance because Congress, as a rule, doesn’t approve legislation that curbs their ability to abuse the system.

“I think the ban on spouses drawing campaign checks is needed because there’s simply been too much abuse of the practice,” Schiff told USA Today.

Ah, the value of understatement.

The two biggest abusers of the system are Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat from California, who diverted $285,481 in campaign funds to her husband’s firm and California Republican Buck McKeon, who managed to siphon off $263,168 in direct payments to his wife.

Dan Burton made this list as well – skimming $143,900 in payments to his daughter.

What will be even more fun will be watching partisans on both sides of the political fence spin the use of campaign funds to pay off relatives. Some will no doubt claim it is no big deal because campaign funds are not public money. Others will say spending $5.1 million on relatives is not that much in a political system where campaigns cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Such rationalizations seldom pass the smell test. Some of those who will dismiss the practice as no big deal because the money isn’t taxpayer funds are the same ones who want public financing of elections, in which case it would be taxpayer money.

And arguing over the amount of the graft reminds us of an old story about an exchange between British author George Bernard Shaw and longtime foil Lady Astor at a fancy dinner party in London.

Shaw asked Lady Astor: “Madam, would you spend the evening with me for a million pounds?”

Replied Lady Astor: “Yes, Mr. Shaw, I believe I would.”

Shaw shot back: “How about five pounds?”

Lady Astor retorted: “Mr. Shaw, what do you think I am?”

Concluded Shaw: “I’ve established that Madam. What I’m trying to determine now is the price.”

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