WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers may have had food and travel on their mind when they put together the package of rules governing the 108th Congress.
Buried in the package passed by the House last week is a provision that gives a new twist to the current House gift ban that says no member can accept perishable food or have their restaurant tab picked up by a lobbyist if the bill is more than $50.
Democrats and congressional watchdog groups say the move backpedals against the gift ban passed in 1995, which is designed to keep the influence of special interest groups at a distance.
"There’s no question it opens up a loopholes — I don’t think that anyone could possibly debate that," said one Democratic aide. "One of the things about ethics is that it's supposed to be a line drawn … I do think it is a loosening or graying in the areas of ethics."
It’s no secret that lobbyists like to do favors for lawmakers in hopes of furthering their interests on Capitol Hill. Whether it be sending fruit baskets to the office or taking members to dinner, lobbying groups are always trying to butter up the lawmakers who could make or break legislation affecting their industry.
To keep lobbyists’ influence at a minimum and to address flagrant abuses by special interest groups, the $50 limit was enacted by both the House and the Senate after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1995. The House passed that measure by an overwhelming vote of 422 to 6. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., authored the 1995 gift ban in that chamber.
But the new rules say that any perishable food given by lobbyists may be allocated among individual recipients in the member’s office and not counted only against the lawmaker.
That means that if lobbyists wanted to send a pizza to a senator as a "thank you" for pushing a bill through Congress, and the staffers split it up, the cost of the pizza would be distributed among those who ate it, lowering the overall cost.
The upside is that since the cost is split among the number of people who enjoy it, lobbyists can send foods of a higher caliber, say steaks and lobster.
"It reflects the reality that when an office receives, say 10 pizzas, under the old rule, the value of the pizza would go straight to the member and technically, nobody else would be able to eat the pizza," said Jo Powers, a Republican spokeswoman for the House Rules Committee.
Republicans maintain that this way, even low-paid junior staffers working tirelessly into the night don’t have to starve.
But that reasoning isn’t flying with Democrats and other groups.
"There are plenty of times we’re working late and the cafeteria’s closed and we go out for food …we’re not chained to our desks and starving to death, that’s really ridiculous," the Democratic aide said. "I don’t care who it feeds, it’s still a loophole."
"This loophole is big enough to drive a delivery truck through," wrote congressional watchdog group Common Cause in a letter sent to the full House this week.
The letter asked the chamber to revisit what it called the "ill-considered changes" to the rules. A main concern for this group is that the package was passed with little to no discussion.
"It is bad faith for the Republican leaders to formulate a proposal to weaken the gift ban in secret, and then try to vote it through the House floor with no public scrutiny or discussion," said Don Simon, acting president of Common Cause. "It gets the 108th Congress off exactly on the wrong foot."
But lobbying groups say the change in the rule won’t make much of a difference and note that with the current security procedures in place on the Hill, it’s hard to get much more than pizza through to offices anyway.
"I would bet you a dinner that you would not see any difference over the next year with this rule than you would before," said Lee Culpepper, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Restaurant Association. "It’s just more of a clarification of something that was confusing to a lot of staff people."
But it’s not only the perishable food provision that’s raising some eyebrows.
Another addition to the package includes a gift ban exemption for charity travel. It allows House members to be reimbursed for travel and lodging expenses by charity organizations that file under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code who invite members to speak or make an appearance at an event.
"This just gives [charities] the ability to bring people in that will help them raise more money," Power said, since lawmaker-centered events usually draw a larger crowd.
But critics say this is a way for lawmakers to enjoy an all-expenses paid trip.
"There is no demonstrated need for this major weakening of the current rule, which will return the House to the days of lavish all-expenses-paid trips for golf tournaments and other recreational activities, in the name of charitable events," reads the Common Cause letter.
The rules package also includes provisions unrelated to gifts, for instance, among other things, a measure that allows "unobtrusive handheld devices" on the House floor. The rule still prohibits the use of wireless telephones and personal computers. Members previously were not allowed any electronic devices.
The package also exempts "the practice of medicine" from a current rule governing fiduciary relationships, meaning physicians and dentists can earn $22,500 of outside income.