A Gift to the Public

THE House of Representatives decided to go the Senate one better last week, banning gifts from lobbyists instead of just limiting them. The reason for this burst of ethical fervor may be a mix of genuine commitment and shrewd political calculating. But the outcome is positive regardless.

Recent polls have shown Congress in the cellar among American institutions when it comes to public trust. The standoff over financing the government doubtless added to the public's disgust. Lawmakers are often perceived as squabbling semi-adolescents.

Americans can take some heart, at least, that on a fundamental issue of ethics even the polarized House managed to muster a 422-6 majority.

That lopsided vote for a virtually total ban on gifts sprang largely from members' awareness of constituents' stern glare. Freshman zealots joined with more seasoned reformers to roll the measure through. It's ironic, perhaps, that the sponsor of the ban was Speaker Gingrich himself. He has not been among the crusaders on this issue, and the legislation backed by most reformers would have followed the Senate's lead toward stricter limits on gifts. The Speaker no doubt recognized the political value of grabbing a ''clean politics'' laurel. He said, correctly, that a ban would eliminate gray areas and confusion.

We hope the same thinking prevails when the House and Senate take up final consideration of companion legislation to require further disclosure of lobbying activity and registration of lobbyists.

Lobbyists, even under the restrictions being imposed by Congress, won't give up trying to sway legislators. That's part of the democratic process. They will, however, be deprived of the blatant gift-giving that bought an indeterminate amount of influence, and a heap of public scorn.

The same thinking ought to prevail when action is taken on wider lobbying reform.

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