Ethical Warnings

The US House of Representatives made progress recently by tightening rules on gifts members can receive from lobbyists. The House leadership had relaxed the gift rules at the beginning of its session in January with no public notice or debate. The House ethics panel also was not consulted - as it should have been.

The relaxed rules made it easier for members and their staffs to have dinner and take trips at lobbyists' expense. (In one example of bending the rules on food, pharmaceutical lobbyists recently delivered dinner to the House Speaker's office the very night the House voted on a prescription-drug bill.)

The House Ethics Committee chairman, Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado, and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, deserve commendation for tightening the ethics rules, but there's more work to be done to keep lawmakers' activities on the up and up.

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Under Representative Hefley's new guidelines, gifts of food now must be refused altogether if the individual offering it has "a direct interest in the particular legislation or other official business on which the staff is working at the time."

Otherwise, legislators and their staffs will have to keep a strict accounting of any free meals.

But members can still attend charity events - often thinly disguised freebies for legislators, bought and paid for by lobbyists. Mr. Hefley's new guidelines warn that the charity event's main purpose must be to raise money for the charity. That ought to be clear enough.

Further, invitations must come from the charity itself, not a from a lobbyist. Special interest groups no longer will be allowed to earmark donations to pay for trips, and only two nights of lodging are allowed. Even so, loopholes remain: Members can still take the trips, and lobbyists who would influence legislation still get special access.

The Hefley restrictions hark back to those imposed in 1995, when Newt Gingrich was House Speaker. Those rules were enacted in response to some 40 years of Democratic Party rule, which had degenerated into a series of ethics abuses (remember the check-writing scandal at the now-closed House bank?)

Though the new restrictions should help, a better course for Congress would be to simply vote to revert to the 1995 no-gifts rule.

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