From a PBS exec's husband who defended the station's funding to a congressman who sought tax breaks for racehorse owners before buying seven horses: A Washington Post investigation finds 73 members of Congress who have recently sponsored or co-sponsored bills that help industries to which they have personal ties. And the lawmakers aren't blind to potential conflicts of interest: They check in with ethics committee lawyers thousands of times per year. From 2007 to 2011, those lawyers offered some 2,800 opinions on such matters, making 40,000 phone calls in the process.
But these communications rarely seek to dissuade legislators from their goals; in fact, they typically help justify the efforts. Lawmakers argue that they're fighting for the greater good, which in some cases matches their own interests. And indeed, ethics rules seem to support that argument, offering exemptions to a financial conflict-of-interest rule. For instance, "if a dairy farmer represented a dairy farming state in the Senate... he would not fall under the strictures of this rule," says the Senate ethics manual. But it's time to tighten such rules, experts tell the Post. They "should not require the public or the media to go digging around to make the connections," notes a public policy professor.