Ethics reform should target PACs, not dinner

ON POLITICS

May 13, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Facing what they fear may be pervasive and implacable hostility from their constituents in November, members of Congress -- in both houses and from both parties -- are falling all over themselves to pass ethics legislation that would save lobbyists a lot of money they now spend on wining and dining. Whether it would solve the problem of special interest money is, however, another question entirely.

The bill passed the Senate 95-4 and the only negative votes rTC came from three senators who don't face re-election until 1998 and one who is retiring, which speaks volumes about how uneasy incumbents have become this year. It would put an end to some of the most egregious examples of lobbyist excess by forbidding members from accepting such things as expense-paid family skiing vacations or excursions to charity golf tournaments.

And, although the final version of the legislation won't be clear for a while, the latter-day reformers apparently are determined to make it illegal for lobbyists to pick up the tabs for lunches and dinners at which they entertain either members of Congress or influential staff advisers.

As Fred Wertheimer, the president of Common Cause, put it, the Senate bill "closes down one central form of the spigot" of special interest money.

It would be a mistake, nonetheless, to expect things to change very much because senators and congressmen would have to '' pick up their own checks or simply stay home. There may be a few members of Congress who will roll over for a couple of martinis and a steak. Indeed, there are some who can be found supping at lobbyists' tables night after night in Capitol Hill restaurants.

But that hardly applies to most of them. On the contrary, some will see the new legislation as a great boon because it gives them an excuse for turning down invitations. Sen. Dale Bumpers Arkansas, for example, told reporters he now could avoid "all those interminable, insufferably dull black-tie dinners downtown."

If it is true that not many members of Congress can be bought over the dinner table, however, it is perhaps equally true that there are too many in both houses and both parties who have become addicted to special interest campaign money -- meaning contributions by political action committees.

So if the reformers are seeking significant rather than largely cosmetic changes in the way business is done here, the way to do it is to pass tough reforms in the system of financing campaigns. It may be unfair to suggest that a senator or congressman can be bought by a $5,000 contribution to his or her campaign, but few would deny that such PAC contributions do give the donors access that everyone doesn't enjoy.

A senator may be able to brush off a lobbyist who picked up the dinner check but rarely one who makes a big campaign contribution. Free trips and fancy meals on someone else's tab may have been a pleasant perk for those who took them, but raising the money to get re-elected is the ultimate in serious business.

The pressures of fund-raising, moreover, have become a constant problem for senators from large states who need to accumulate thousands of dollars every day. Many of them find themselves spending much of their campaigns speaking to fund-raising events rather than to their constituencies. And that means they spend much and often most of their time talking to people who already agree with them on issues enough so that they will show up at a fund-raiser.

Senators and representatives have good reasons to be spooked this year. There are already signs in the first rounds of primaries that incumbency may be heavy baggage for many. Some of those House members who saw their vote drop from its usual 57 or 58 percent to 52 or 53 percent in 1992 recognize that if that kind of drop recurs, they are gone.

An obvious answer would be to produce, for example, a health care reform that voters would like enough so they would want to reward those in Congress who were responsible. But if that seems a little unlikely, they can at least put some distance -- or the appearance of it -- between themselves and the lobbyists.

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