No More Freebies for Congress
PRESIDENT Clinton had it right in explaining the results of the 1993 November elections. Americans voted for change in 1992 and now are dissatisfied with the pace and progress of that change.
Congress should take heed. Correctly or not, the public perceives that members of Congress are more concerned with their own perks than with the public's business. For too long, senators and representatives have delayed acting on meaningful congressional reforms to correct that impression.
The House needs to revise congressional gift rules, which still allow lobbyists to buy gifts, purchase an unlimited number of meals, and underwrite travel and entertainment for lawmakers. Unfortunately, senior House members of both parties prevented a good plan - drawn up by Rep. John Bryant (D) of Texas, chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue - from reaching the floor for a vote before recess. But thanks to the clout of a large and reform-minded House freshman class, gift reform - which many of us long have considered necessary - has finally been put on the table.
Present law allows members to accept gifts worth up to $250 from any one source, and an unlimited number of gifts worth $100 or less. Freshman have pushed to further limit the value of gifts to $20 with an annual limit of $50 from one source, while tightening up reporting requirements. I have proposed legislation that would ban gifts regardless of value (with very few exceptions) because I believe the reporting requirements are ultimately unworkable.
The Bryant bill combines features of both current law and my proposal, giving it the best chance of passage. Under Mr. Bryant's proposal, members would be prohibited from accepting free meals, except when provided by a company official other than a lobbyist, when provided at charitable or political events, or when provided by the sponsors of a widely attended gathering such as a convention or symposium.
Members also would be banned from accepting gifts of entertainment, such as tickets for sports events, from lobbyists. Gifts of travel expenses would be disallowed unless necessary for a fact-finding trip. In those instances a member could not accept lodging for more than 24 hours after the work of the trip was completed.
All other gifts from lobbyists would be banned, except those from family members or close personal friends, personalized items such as plaques for recognition, home-state products, and informational materials. The Bryant bill requires stricter disclosure by members of expenditures and contributions from lobbyists that are allowed.
Some of my colleagues believe current rules are tough enough. But many of our constituents see these gifts, trips, and meals as a way for lobbyists to gain a level of access that is not available to the average citizen back home.
Our constituents are right. While it is extremely unlikely that any member of Congress would cast a vote on the basis of a meal or a gift purchased by a lobbyist, gifts from lobbyists do alter the relationship between Congress and the public. Gift-giving is part of a money-driven Washington way of life, which helps explain why voters are so angry at politicians.
During the 1992 election campaign, millions of voters were energized by the promise of economic and political change. Now it is time for Congress to deliver on that promise of change by enacting real political reform. The House should do the right thing and pass the Bryant bill banning most gifts from lobbyists to its members.