Senate seeks cleaner image in vote tonight on bill to ban gifts, expensive meals

May 11, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The other day, Sen. John B. Breaux breezed into the 116, an exclusive Capitol Hill restaurant that caters to lobbyists and their lunchtime guests. "I'm here for my last gift," he quipped to friends.

At that moment, the Louisiana Democrat's Senate colleagues were debating legislation designed to end cozy relationships between lawmakers and the lobbyists who treat them to meals, trips, entertainment and other gifts.

Tonight, that legislation -- a sweeping bill to outlaw such gifts -- is expected to be approved overwhelmingly by senators who, according to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have worked themselves into a frenzy of "self-flagellation."

But the bill is unlikely to change much of how business is done in Washington.

The wining-and-dining culture already has largely given way to politicians' concerns about their image, prompting the senators to support the gift-ban bill.

Yet lawmakers and lobbyists are still bound by an alliance based on friendship, information-sharing and campaign-finance support.

Regardless of who picks up a dinner tab, lawmakers will still grant access to lobbyists they have come to know and trust. And lobbyists willlikely remain a major source of the campaign donations that members need to win re-election.

An election-year panic inspired the Senate to take their gift ban far beyond a weaker House version adopted earlier. That same fear is expected to rally support for the stricter Senate version when lawmakers meet to resolve differences between the two measures.

But even the Senate measure has dozens of loopholes, including exemptions for home-state activities and for business-related trips that include entertainment.

"In the end, it's not going to change anything," said Michael Bromberg, the lobbyist for the Federation of American Health Systems, a network of private hospitals. "I think the most interesting thing is how few lobbyists are lobbying the anti-lobbying bill. We just don't care."

Local restaurateurs are not so blase. They see an extension of a trend that could wipe out Washington night spots so pricey that only those with expense accounts can afford them.

"It just stands to reason that if the 15,000 lobbyists in town can no longer pick up the checks for several thousand members of Congress and their aides, it will have a dramatic effect," said John Valanos, owner of The Monocle Restaurant near the Capitol. "We'll be left with nothing but fast-food restaurants."

Robert Juliano, who represents restaurant workers, is the only lobbyist working the halls against the gift-ban bill.

But Mr. Juliano, who earned a reputation in the 1980s as being among the most generous of hosts for dining legislators, said the culture of Washington has already changed. He stopped entertaining lawmakers three years ago, he said, "because all of a sudden it became something sinister."

The Senate is responding belatedly -- and with indignation -- to public contempt of Congress that seemed to culminate in the 1992 elections.

The House banking scandal, television exposes on junketing lawmakers and Ross Perot's diatribes against the unseemly influence of Washington's well-heeled lobbyists contributed to the view that Congress was full of schmoozers out to feather their own nests.

"That presumption is very distant from reality," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "But there's no question the public believes it. This is one of those situations where the perception becomes the reality, so Congress has to address it."

Among the distortions of the gift-ban bill, Mr. Mann said, is the implicit suggestion that lobbyists buy influence with Congress through entertainment. In fact, he said, the more questionable relationship is the virtual "extortion" that members of Congress exert on lobbyists they rely on to raise money for re-election campaigns.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby that has been crusading for the gift-ban bill, argued that the senators wouldn't have complained so much if they didn't believe that the bill would have a big impact.

As for campaign money from lobbyists, Mr. Wertheimer said, "We're trying to take care of that, too" in a separate bill.

That bill would ban contributions from lobbyists and political action committees but would depend on public money as an alternative. The public-money aspect could be even more controversial.

The gift-ban bill, as proposed in the Senate last week, would havebarred gifts from lobbyists but allowed the senators to accept meals and other gifts worth up to $20 from anyone else.

At present, members of Congress can accept gifts worth $100 or less, but only $250 worth a year from one person. Meals and trips are virtually unlimited.

Mr. McConnell and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, the Louisiana Democrat, complained that the $20 limit was too low. They offered to raise it to $75.

But the higher limit was defeated by a margin of 59 to 39, with 22 of the 26 senators up for re-election this year, voting against it, including Paul S. Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Baltimore Democrat, voted for the higher limit.

Sen. Dale Bumpers, an Arkansas Democrat who supported the McConnell amendment, said a $20 limit wasn't worth the trouble, and moved to ban all gifts to members of Congress, except from family and friends. It passed 90 to 3.

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