An idea for good government

The good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington last week reported that 82 members of Congress had family members on the payrolls of their offices, campaigns or political action committees.

The big stars were Reps. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who pays his girlfriend/staffer about $160,000 a year, and Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., whose wife/staffer made $512,000 between 2007 and 2010. Rep. Ron "Limited Government" Paul, R-Texas, paid six different relatives a total of $304,000 in the last two election cycles.

In Missouri, for instance, the big star was Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. In the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, his campaign committee and political action committee paid a combined $303,847 to the law firm of his sister, Michelle Clay, and to his father’s scholarship fund.

This is not a new issue for Clay. In 2005, he rose to the defense of ethics-challenged Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who had been accused (among other things) of putting relatives on the campaign payroll.

"I don’t see what’s wrong with having family members help you advance your political career," Clay said at the time.

There is no national standard for what professional political fundraisers are paid. Costs can be very high for first-time candidates who must reach out to new donors. But, in 2010, Clay was a 10-year incumbent running in a hyper-safe district against token opposition. Nearly two-thirds of his contributions came from political action committees, and 31 percent came in large contributions from individual donors. How hard could it be to tap that donor base?

Pardon the idealism, but government service is not a family business, it’s public service. If having you in government service is so wonderful, family members should volunteer.

Thirty-eight members of Congress earmarked nearly $150 million in recent years to family businesses, employers or associated nonprofits.

This kind of thing breeds cynicism. It demeans the role of government. It helps explain why the most recent Gallup Poll shows that only 12 percent of Americans approve of the job that Congress is doing. It’s a wonder it’s that high.