When Members of Congress Sleep With Lobbyists

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Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

All things told, Bill Shuster couldn’t have picked a better week for his relationship with a lobbyist to become news. On Thursday, Politico reported that Shuster, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was having what he described as a “private and personal relationship” with a top lobbyist at a major airline trade association, Airlines for America. This comes at a time when the group is lobbying heavily for a major bill overhauling the Federal Aviation Administration. Coming after a week in which a man landed a flying bicycle on the Capitol lawn, Marco Rubio defied his mentor to announce a run for president, and Hillary Clinton ordered a burrito bowl, Shuster’s relationship will hardly be the biggest news of the week — and for that, he’s lucky. Lawmaker-sleeps-with-lobbyist stories are media catnip because they seem to confirm the very worst of what everyone already knows about Washington: that big-moneyed interests and their relationships with lawmakers are way too cozy and close.

But it’s not entirely clear that Shuster did anything wrong — at least, not by the standards of the lawmakers who wrote the bill regulating their relationships with lobbyists. After Jack Abramoff caused a congressional lobbying megascandal in 2005, Congress passed a sweeping ethics bill banning lobbyists from showering members with gifts, fancy dinners, and airplane rides. The bill also changed the rules about what lobbyists who have personal relationships with lawmakers can do. In the Senate, husbands, wives, and other immediate family members were barred from lobbying anyone in the Upper Chamber; in the House, only spouses were banned from lobbying their own relatives’ offices. Other family members have their run of the House. In 2012, the Washington Post reported that “[m]ore than 500 firms have spent more than $400 million on lobbying teams that include the relatives of members.”

They included the ex-lawmaker father of one Missouri Democrat who was hired to lobby on bills his son had helped create, a Republican who came from a proud family tradition of lobbyists and passed the tradition on to her daughters, and the son-in-law of Harry Reid lobbying on a bill Reid himself had introduced to Congress. None of it violated congressional ethics rules.

The rules are even less clear when it comes to nonfamilial relationships. Coincidentally, a North Carolina ethics panel tackled the question directly seven weeks ago. “Consensual sexual relationships do not have monetary value and therefore are not reportable as gifts or ‘reportable expenditures made for lobbying,’” the state ethics commission said after receiving an inquiry. In other words, lawmaker-lobbyist sex is valueless. Or invaluable. Either way, it’s fine.

Like past lawmakers asked about potential conflicts of interest, Shuster responded that he had a personal code that went above and beyond the strictures of the law, telling Politico that he “has in place a policy that deals with personal relationships that cover my staff and myself. This was created in consultation with legal counsel and goes further than is required by the law. Under that policy, Ms. Rubino [the lobbyist in question] doesn’t lobby my office, including myself and my staff.” But this was more of a family affair than it seemed to be. Bud Shuster, the lawmaker’s father, was also once the chair of the transportation committee. After almost three decades in the House, he resigned. A few months earlier, the House ethics committee reported that Shuster had allowed a former top aide turned lobbyist to meet with him, “creat[ing] the appearance that his official decisions might have been improperly affected.” A 60 Minutes report showing the elder Shuster hiding in the backseat of the lobbyist’s car implied they were having a relationship. She was later found guilty of bribery.

There’s already so much overlap between Airlines for America and the lawmaker that it’d be difficult to point to where any impropriety began, or ended. “He recently hired Chris Brown, A4A’s vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, to be staff director on the Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee. That panel is playing a critical role in the FAA reauthorization,” Politico noted. “Shuster’s personal office chief of staff, Eric Burgeson, is married to Christine Burgeson, senior vice president of government relations at A4A.” And they’ve given tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign committees. With that level of influence, who would need to bother with a relationship that was anything less than genuine?