WASHINGTON — FRESHMAN Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin has not allowed lobbyists to pay for meals, entertainment, or gifts for himself or staff since his days as a state senator.
Sen. Harris Wofford (D) of Pennsylvania instituted the same policy on May 11, the day the Senate passed legislation banning most freebies from lobbyists, even though it's not the law yet.
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan holds his office to the standard the executive branch operates under: nothing worth more than $20. ``We call it the chew but don't swallow approach,'' says press secretary Kathy McShea.
For lobbyists, the handwriting is on the wall. Either out of genuine ethical concern and a desire to improve Congress's image - or out of fear of shows like ``Prime Time Live,'' which in 1990 caught some House members on a legal but embarrassing junket to Barbados paid for in part by industry lobbyists - members of Congress are increasingly leery of handouts. Now that both House and Senate have passed bills banning gifts (with important exceptions), a new law is expected by the end of the year.
How will lobbyists conduct business in this brave new world? The name of the game, after all, is access, and since everyone has to eat, it seems natural to meet over a meal. Many lobbyists interviewed called the bill ``extreme.'' Lobbyist James Rock grumbles that it doesn't make sense not to be able to ``take a member of Congress out for a $20 lunch to hash out ideas.''
Tom Korologos, another top lobbyist, jokes that ever-resourceful Capitol Hill restaurants will come up with deals like ``buy one lunch, get one free'' for $39.95, so that lobbyists technically aren't buying lunch for a member.
Of course, members and staff are free to pay their own way while dining with a lobbyist, especially if, as lobbyists say, they are helping members by pointing out the pitfalls in a bill. Many lobbyists are former congressional aides or former Congress members and know more than current members about some issues.
Still, the likely upshot of the gift ban will be a lot less entertaining. For lobbyists whose principal occupation is to gain entree for the more substance-oriented people they represent, life could be difficult.
``Lobbyists who are walking credit cards are going to have a hard time under the new regime,'' says a lobbyist who declined to be named because some of these people are his friends.
But the smarter lobbyists will adapt. Some say they will take the money they would have spent on entertainment and plow it into more campaign contributions to members - certainly an unwelcome side effect for activists who are seeking to remove the financial link between Congress and interest groups. In fact, one lobbyist says, ``By doing the gift ban, they're avoiding the tough issue of campaign finance reform.''
Lobbyist Jack Bonner calls the legislation ``mostly swiss cheese reforms'' but still sees a boost to his own brand of lobbying - grass roots. His specialty is identifying key constituent groups that would support the position of his client, and getting these constituents to call or write their members. Though ``just sign here'' postcard campaigns are next to worthless, Mr. Bonner says, as are call-ins in which constituents seem to be reading from a script, he notes that members pay close attention to their mail and calls. The trick is to make sure the constituents know their facts and state them in their own words.
Another use for lobbying money could be charity events. Funds could be spent to put such events in a member's district, without the member being linked to the money. But the member's image would be enhanced by his or her connection to the event, an event organizer suggests.
What is clear is that the lobbying industry won't be regulated into oblivion. Lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity; citizens have the right to redress grievances. And as much as the public tends to think lobbyists hinder democracy, some of those same lobbyist-bashers would be the first to stick up for ``their'' lobbyists, such as those who work for the elderly or for unions.
Still, not since the era of Franklin Roosevelt have an administration and Congress been so eager to restrict lobbyists, according to Richard Sachs of the Congressional Research Service. Many lobbyists agree that the disclosure system, dating back to 1946, needs updating. But it remains to be seen how tough the gift ban will ultimately be, since the House and Senate versions each contain loopholes. A few exceptions
The House, for example, would allow groups that employ lobbyists to underwrite a member's travel to an event and pay for meals and entertainment, even though the lobbyist per se would not be allowed to do the same. Also, a lobbyist could take a member out to eat as long as an official of the company or group were present. The Senate bill would allow members to accept gifts and entertainment in their home states.
The American League of Lobbyists remains unimpressed. ``It's already having a chilling effect,'' says Fred Gebler, the group's president. ``Members are still coming [to events], but such that they give their remarks and depart. If there's a meal, they just have a cup of coffee.''
He concludes: ``We feel we should not be targeted as a class of citizens.''