Senators would bar lobbyist-paid meals

Critics say move is superficial, fails to address access


WASHINGTON -- Senators would have to "go dutch" when wining and dining with lobbyists under a provision approved yesterday as part of a pending ethics reform bill.

Currently, senators are permitted to let lobbyists pick up the tab for meals worth less than $50, and the bill as originally written simply would have required public disclosure by the lawmakers of such payments.

But a group of Republicans and Democrats pushed for the amendment to bar senators or their aides from accepting any meal from a lobbyist, arguing that the prohibition would send an important message. The provision was adopted by a voice vote.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said that although senators were unlikely to sell their votes for the price of a meal, a larger principle was at stake.

"In cities and towns all across America, people pay for their own lunches and their own dinners," Obama said. "People who make far less than we do. People who can't afford their medical bills or their mortgages or their kids' tuition."

The bill already included a prohibition on senators accepting other gifts from lobbyists.

Officials with watchdog groups said the amendment's approval underscored that while Congress might be willing to take superficial steps to clean up its image, it was unwilling to grapple with the real source of influence exerted by lobbyists - campaign contributions they are able to generate for lawmakers through their contacts and clients.

The bill the Senate is debating is designed to tighten restrictions on the access that lobbyists have to lawmakers and increase the public scrutiny of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill. It was sparked, in part, by scandals surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who helped funnel hundreds of thousands of campaign contributions to lawmakers in both parties, and former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from San Diego.

In January, Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and engaging in schemes to bribe members of Congress. Cunningham pleaded guilty last fall to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes; he resigned his seat and last week was sentenced to more than eight years in jail.

The watchdog groups have said the cases illustrate the need for significant changes to campaign finance laws and the creation of an independent office that could initiate investigations of possible misdeeds by lawmakers. But neither the Senate reform bill nor similar legislation anticipated in the House would take the steps urged by the groups.

The Senate bill would require lobbyists to file more public reports detailing their business activities and reveal more information about their fundraising efforts for politicians. It also would require lawmakers leaving office to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying their former colleagues, up from the current one-year moratorium.

Several senators acknowledged yesterday that the issue of paid meals was largely symbolic. But Obama argued that the ban the Senate adopted could curb the influence wielded by some lobbyists.

"It's not just the meal that's the problem, it's access that meal gets you," he said. "You don't see many members eating $50 meals with constituents who are in town to talk about the issues on their mind or with policy experts who are discussing the latest economic theories. Most of these meals are with high-priced lobbyists who are advocating on behalf of a specific interest."

Others warned that the amendment could have unintended consequences, such as encouraging lobbyists to hold lavish receptions in the place of taking lawmakers out to eat.

"I do think we're going to regret this, and we're going to look small. I think we demean ourselves by inferring that we could be had for the price of a lunch or a dinner, which is just not the case," said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who, as chairman of the chamber's rules committee, helped write the ethics reform bill.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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