Freebies on the House

House Republicans on Capitol Hill have decided their ethics rules - the ones they enacted in 1995 after Americans were fed up with Democrats taking favors from special interests - have been too stiff to allow them to legislate well.

So they relaxed the rules, allowing well-heeled lobbyists from corporations, unions, and other organizations to once again grease up their relationships with lawmakers.

Under the old ethics rules, a House member and his or her staff could take only $100 for an entire year and had a $50 per event limit on tickets from lobbyists. And there was a complete ban on reimbursement for travel to charitable fundraising events, you know, of the well- manicured golf course and resort kind.

Those rules were reasonable enough - it's hard for lobbyists to get much from a Capitol Hill staffer by paying for only a piece of pizza. But free trips to charitable events?

Now, though, and without debate on the House floor, the GOP slipped in a change to the rules late last year that allows House members to be reimbursed for such travel. Further, the "pizza rule" was changed so that a $50 limit applies separately to the number of people working in a House member's offices.

Suddenly, meals more lavish than pizza look more possible. Indeed, the acting president of Common Cause, Don Simon, says, "The pizza rule's now been turned into a caviar rule."

Where to draw the line?

The new rules are far more easily subject to abuse in interpretation. And what's making all that possible? Some 20,000-plus registered lobbyists in Washington.

The simple fact is that the older House ethics rules were put in place to avoid luring politicians and their staff with fancy meals and trips. If those with money can win the most access to those with power, what hope is there that the voices of other Americans will be heard?

There are freebies and then there are freebies. And it's easy to know which ones are a bit too rich for a democracy when you see them.

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