Senate votes to limit gifts to members House unlikely to go along

July 29, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- No more expense-paid trips to the Super Bowl. No more free skiing junkets to Vail or golf outings to Palm Springs.

Beginning Jan. 1, members of the U.S. Senate will have to adhere to new rules sharply limiting the freebies they can accept from lobbyists and other special interests.

The rules, adopted yesterday on a 98-0 vote, are intended to bolster public respect for Congress, damaged in recent years by allegations of congressional abuses of perks and privileges.

The new restrictions, which apply only to the Senate, put a $100 annual limit on gifts from any one source and require that all gifts of more than $10 apply to that ceiling. The Senate briefly flirted with easing those limits but backed off when it became clear it would be a public relations disaster.

While it would still be possible for a lobbyist to take a senator to lunch, or provide free tickets to games or other entertainment events, the value of such a gift would be limited to $50 per instance and could not exceed $100 in the aggregate in a calendar year.

"There's a lack of credibility and a degree of cynicism out there that undermines confidence in Congress," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who helped steer the change through the Senate by enlisting several of his freshman colleagues in the effort. "I believe we took a giant step forward in closing that credibility gap."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, another co-sponsor, was not quite as sanguine, though he did rejoice in finally winning a struggle that has preoccupied him for two years. "It may not be a home run, but the Senate hit a triple -- and that's progress," said the Democrat.

The House has not acted to curb similar practices there. Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said earlier this week that the House would not take up the matter "until next year."

That drew a sharp response from Common Cause President Ann McBride, who said the House leadership should act immediately.

"Lobbyists are playing an extraordinarily influential role in the House in crafting legislation, and that needs to be addressed," she said. "These new Senate rules are the same ones that apply to officials in the executive branch, so only the House is now saying that free meals and free vacations and lavish gifts are OK."

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, another reform group, also hailed the Senate's action yesterday and said it should hasten the day for other major changes to clean up national politics.

"This opens the door for campaign-finance reform, which is the big enchilada," she said. "It sends a loud notice to the congressional leadership that campaign reform needs to be done in this Congress."

The 98-0 vote in the Senate capped two years of off-and-on efforts by a small bipartisan band of senators to impose new ethical standards in congressional relations with this city's thousands of lobbyists and other special interests.

In its original form, the gift threshold was $20, with an allowable aggregate of $50 per year from any one source.

But Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the majority whip, won approval early yesterday, by a 54-46 vote, of an amendment that would have permitted an unlimited number of gifts, worth $50 or less, from any lobbyist or other special pleader. In effect, it would have been business as usual on Capitol Hill.

"That would have opened a gaping loophole that you could've driven an Amtrak [train] through," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who was a key sponsor of the gift reform measure.

"A lone lobbyist, for instance, could've spent thousands of dollar year, in $50 pieces, without any limits or any requirement to disclose it."

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