Who buys the pizza?

January 16, 2003

HOUSE REPUBLICAN leaders celebrated the opening this month of a fifth congressional term under GOP control by loosening ethics rules.

They blessed a time-honored practice of lobbyists sending food into congressional offices where the staff is working late. And they allowed House members to accept free travel to charity events, such as golf tournaments.

Neither of these changes rates high on the outrage meter. They pale against the conflicts of interest inherent in the campaign finance system - and barely attracted notice when they were adopted last week along strict party lines. But they are steps in the wrong direction by a party that won the House eight years ago after exposing the ethical abuses of the Democrats.

The so-called "pizza rule" clarifies that food sent into a congressional office won't be charged against the $50 limit on meals an individual lawmaker can accept from a lobbyist. Instead, the total cost of the food will be divided by all those who share it. A much better meal than pizza can be catered for less than $50 a head.

Lobbyists love to provide such treats for staff members working late on legislation. What they hope for in return is usually information, which is crucial to their ability to ply their trade.

Lawmakers don't usually take part in these late-night snacks because they're in downtown Washington at fund-raisers collecting money directly from lobbyists for their re-election campaigns.

GOP leaders changed the travel rules because they were having trouble getting House members to attend charity events - even in choice vacation spots - unless somebody else paid their way.

House members could already accept travel from outside organizations for conferences and "fact-finding" missions. Taxpayers pick up the freight for most overseas junkets.

Republicans should beware, however, of the arrogance and complacency that overcome a party when it's been in power too long. That attitude led to the House bank and post office scandals under the Democrats and helped end their 40-year reign.

Voters think, rightly so, that lawmakers earning $150,000 a year can supply their own pizza for late-night work sessions and shouldn't expect charities to finance their vacations.

Greed doesn't play well back home.

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