Congressional ethics experts say reforms are needed.
Harvard public policy professor Dennis Thompson said lawmakers should refrain from having narrowly focused legislative agendas that align with their personal investments. Disclosure should also be broadened, he said, so the public is notified by a lawmaker of potential conflicts at the time they are taking official actions, including when bills are introduced.
"Ethics rules are supposed to make things clear and transparent," Thompson said. "They should not require the public or the media to go digging around to make the connections."
The legislators, in interviews and through spokesmen, said they saw no conflicts between their legislative actions and holdings. They added that they have a duty to advocate for their constituents, even when those interests align with their own.
Last year, for example, when Republicans attempted to slash funding for public broadcasting, Rep. William L. Owens, D-N.Y., was among a group of Democrats who fought to stop them. Owens's wife is an executive at a public television station, one of nine public TV and radio outlets that broadcast into his district in upstate New York. Owens disclosed her job when he spoke briefly on the House floor opposing the proposed cuts.
"From my perspective, I was representing nine entities," Owens said in an interview. "It wasn't like I was asking for a specific item for the entity my wife worked for."
For three years, the horse-racing industry tried but failed to get Congress to pass a bill that would change the way equine investments are tabulated at tax time. But in the spring of 2008, a new path opened up when then-Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., was appointed to a conference committee responsible for hammering out the final language of the next farm bill.