By MICHAEL MALIK
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
April 19, 2006
"Universal is a great American business success story and it is my privilege to honor the company, its chairman, Peter Secchia, and its thousands of employees," reads the plaque, which hangs alongside other awards and photographs at company headquarters.
It's a copy of a statement that Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., inserted into the official Congressional Record on Feb. 1, 2005.
What it doesn't say is that nine days before Ehlers put the statement into the record, Secchia gave Ehlers a $1,000 campaign contribution. About two weeks earlier, another Universal executive donated $500. Since 2001, the two executives have given Ehlers' campaign committee $7,000.
The practice of honoring campaign donors in the Congressional Record is commonplace among members of the House of Representatives, according to a study by the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.
Thirty-four of 44 top-ranked members of Congress have lauded campaign donors with written "extensions of remarks" in the Congressional Record, the study showed.
Scripps Howard reviewed Congressional Record statements since 2001 by the Republican chair and ranking Democrat for every House committee, plus the House speaker and minority leader.
Of the 118 donor-honoring statements found, 83 were by Democrats, and 35 by Republicans. People honored by the official statements gave a combined $357,036 to Democrats' campaigns and $130,900 to Republicans', federal records showed.
Nine lawmakers had honored six or more donors.
On three occasions, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has honored donors in the record. He received more than $8,500 from them. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California has made eight statements for the record honoring donors, receiving almost $30,000 from those honored or their relatives.
The remarks represented a small fraction of the legislators' 4,004 "extensions of remarks." Still, the practice worries some watchdogs.
Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, said money doesn't necessarily buy influence on Capitol Hill, but it does buy access.
He said it doesn't surprise him that remarks honoring donors are being entered into the Congressional Record.
"At one point, it was probably the main area people had debates about what was most affecting our nation," Ashdown said. "And now it's about paying people back for a campaign contribution."
Norm Ornstein, who studies Congress as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said honoring a donor in the Congressional Record is not always evidence of something fishy.
"Members treat inserts into the record as piffle, not meaningful, but what we've learned is, it is the Congressional Record and it's meaningful," Ornstein said. "It was an opportunity for members who might not have time on the floor because it was constrained, to add materials that were not discussed during the debate itself."
According to House ethics rules, members cannot take contributions linked to any official House action. But the rule has never been enforced against the practice of inserting praise for campaign donors into the Congressional Record.
"At the very least, it is the kind of problem that we have because the ethics committee refuses to take action," said Melanie Sloane, executive director for the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Members of Congress do know better than this."
The House ethics committee issued an advisory opinion in May 1999 reiterating the rule and "reminding" House members they cannot take any gifts in exchange for official action. But the committee did not directly refer to the Congressional Record.
Lawmakers defend their official remarks and deny they are made in return for campaign contributions.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., honored 14 donors or their companies - the most of any of the lawmakers reviewed. He received $14,400 in campaign contributions from those individuals. The statements highlighted milestones such as awards, birthdays and retirements.
For example, in November 2003, Skelton entered into the record a Veterans Day speech made by retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Shirkey. Ten days earlier, Shirkey donated $500 to Skelton's re-election campaign. Shirkey has donated $1,750 to Skelton since 2001.
Lara Battles, Skelton's press secretary, said extensions of remarks are frequently tributes to outstanding citizens and military-service members upon retirement, in recognition of an honor or award or as a memorial tribute.
"That a dozen or so of his contributors would be among the outstanding citizens is not surprising," she said. "There is no quid pro quo for Congressional Record statements."
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., honored 12 donors who contributed a combined $51,750 over the years.
Lynne Weil, Lantos' communication director, said if Lantos wants to make a remark for the record, the staff doesn't check to see if that person is a donor.
"These people are being praised for their contributions to society, great achievements or a lifetime of public service," Weil said. "Some of these donors are the congressman's friends."
Phil Friedman, founder and president of Computer Generated Solutions, was honored in May 2005 for moving his New York office to Lower Manhattan. Lantos' official statement called it "an event significant in its own right, since it marks the continued rebirth of an area devastated by the September 11th attacks."
Friedman has given Lantos $4,000, and other company employees have given him $3,500.
In mid-June 2005, Stephen Hebert donated $2,000 to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. That came 10 days before Hunter entered a remark into the record honoring Hebert's father, the late professional baseball player Wally A. "Preacher" Hebert. Since 2001, Stephen Hebert has given Hunter $3,000.
Hunter press secretary Joseph Kasper said, "There's nothing unethical about it."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
Publish A Letter on SitNews Read Letters/Opinions