Help Us Design the Next Phase of the Family Business Investigation


While we’re wrapping up the last loose ends of the first part of our Is Congress a Family Business? investigation, I’d like to share a few suggestions for what we do next, solicit as many suggestions as possible for alternatives, and get people thinking about how we could better design the tools for going forward.

A few notes: I’d like to continue looking at family members of members of Congress, and I’d like to do so systematically–that is, focusing on Congress as an institution rather than digging into just one or two members. Here we list 19 members of the House who pay their spouses salaries and wages directly from their campaign treasuries, adding money donated to their campaigns to their family budgets. There are also members with close relatives that are registered to lobby Congress (here’s a partial list compiled by the Associated Press) or who represent foreign interests. I would like us to develop as comprehensive an index as possible on family members of Congress who are in the business of electioneering or influence.

A logical follow-on would be to repeat what we did with the House–looking for direct payments from campaign funds to a Member’s spouse–with the Senate. Regrettably, no one organizes the expenditures from Senate campaigns in the way that the Center for Responsive Politics does for House campaigns. That’s because, unlike House members, federal law does not require Senate campaigns to file electronically (for more background on that, see here, here, here and here). In practical terms, what this means is that if we wanted to look for Senate spouses, we’d have to begin by scrolling through reports to the Federal Election Commission like this 1170 page monster filed by Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s now campaigning for the Senate. (I chose him as an example because in the past his House campaigns hired his wife–and his stepdaughter, too.) The reports list both itemized receipts (that’s campaign contributions) and itemized disbursements (that’s money spent by the campaign); in the 1170 page report linked above, the disbursements start on page 979. I didn’t click through all 191 pages, but that’s what you’d have to do to search for payments to Sanders’s spouse, and even then you wouldn’t know definitively whether or not she is working for his Senate campaign; you’d still have to go through all the other reports he’s filed in this election cycle. I’m not saying this isn’t doable for 100 Senators or the third of them that are running for re-election, but the tool would look a little different than the House version and the work might have to be divided differently.

We could also continue looking at the spouses of House members. Some commenters on the first round pointed out that the research didn’t capture situations like this one, in which a spouse works for a firm that in turn works for the member’s campaign (we might call this the Julie Doolittle phenomenon, after the wife of Rep. John Doolittle. Ms. Doolittle runs a firm called Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, which makes its money raising money for her husband’s campaign–or, as the Sacramento Bee reported about one recent fundraising event…

Julie Doolittle’s company, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, earns a 15 percent commission on money she brings in for the Doolittle campaign, meaning their household could take in more than $90,000 as its share of donations from Tuesday’s 311 paying guests.

To track this sort of information, we could build a tool that starts with a member’s personal financial disclosure form (on which members must list their spouse’s sources of income), then check spouse employers against campaign expenditures.

Those are my thoughts, but obviously, there are many other possibilities–we could look for children of House members working for their campaigns, we could for leadership PACs of members that have hired spouses, or we could shift from campaigns to lobbying records, and look for spouses who have registered to lobby for special interests.

And, of course, beyond the subject we choose to research, there’s also the way we design the tools and the methodology to do the research. I’d be eager for feedback on that as well (although, to some extent, the topic and the resources for finding the information will have quite a bit of impact on what the tools look like and do).