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The Kids Are Not All Right

June 24, 2003

The biggest problem in Washington has never been with what's illegal. It is, as pundit Michael Kinsley famously observed, with what's legal. A Times investigative series Sunday and Monday, describing the breadth of companies' attempts to gain influence by hiring relatives of lawmakers, gives new meaning to ethical blindness.

Certainly relatives who seek to profit off their political connections are nothing new -- remember the embarrassing performances of Billy Carter and Roger Clinton? But the ill-fated Billy Beer is light-years from today's back-scratching family affairs. If the situations described in the series occurred in a faraway nation, leaders in Congress would be standing up to decry it. Yet the legal -- but wrong -- conflicts of interests going on in the House and Senate are tolerated.

Legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, involved in the cases include:

* House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who works on technology issues. His son, Joshua, is a technology lobbyist.

* California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose son, Doug, works for a lobbying firm representing clients who sought her assistance on airport and tribal issues.

* Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). Each has a son working on behalf of BellSouth. Breaux and Tauzin sponsored bills to ease restrictions on Baby Bells in competing with cable companies for the high-speed Internet market. Lott's son, Chet, is perhaps the most colorful example. Devoid of telecommunications expertise, he became a telecom lobbyist after running pizza franchises and being a polo player.

* Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is in a class by himself. Reid sponsored legislation last year benefiting real estate, mining and corporate interests that were paying hundreds of thousands in lobbying fees to his sons' and son-in-law's firms. After The Times interviewed him last fall, Reid banned relatives, but not their partners and colleagues, from lobbying his office. It's a fig leaf that covers nothing. The unspoken message, intended or not, is clear: You want legislation passed? Hire my kid.

Some in Congress hold their noses at such behavior but note that there is no law or rule against it. If Congress wanted a rule, there would be one. By failing to control this revoltingly unethical practice, lawmakers seem to say it will remain business as usual.

Congress makes its own rules for behavior. A hard and fast rule against relatives or their firms lobbying Congress would change the perception that family ties are influencing public policy. One former staffer of the Senate Ethics Committee suggested a common-sense standard for relatives of Congress members: "You can become a plumber. You can do anything you want. But you can't lobby."

Lawmakers should resist the impulse to whine about the difficulty of creating such rules. They and their children, spouses and in-laws got into this mess by refusing to follow the most elemental ethical principles for representative government. If necessary, let Junior bake pizzas again.

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