House Weakens Ethics Rules

Undoing their own strict ethics rules Tuesday, Republicans pushed changes through the House that would make it easier for lobbyists to send boxes of pizza and buckets of chicken to congressional offices. The changes also would allow charities to give lawmakers free travel and lodging at resorts.

The changes by the majority Republican leadership caught Democrats by surprise and ignored the House ethics committee's warnings against skirting the spirit of ethical conduct.

The change in the perishable food provision -- dubbed the "pizza rule" by protesting Democrats -- legalized the very type of scheme in the ethics panel's warning last November.

The rules changes, which apply to House members and their staffs, passed on a party-line vote 221-203. A Democratic effort to kill the resolution was defeated, 225-200.

Republicans had imposed a series of strict ethics rules after taking over the House in 1995, following 40 years of Democratic control and numerous ethics investigations.

"Republicans believe they have such a safe and security majority they want to undo some of the significant strides," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas.

The new food rule would apply, for example, when lobbyists want to have dinner delivered to a committee office when lawmakers and their staffs are working late on legislation.

Before the change, the value of the food would have counted against a $49.99 ceiling for a single gift to a member and a $99.99 annual limit for gifts from the same source.

The change would allocate the value of the food against the gift limits of all those who eat it. It was unclear how House officials would keep track of everyone who grabbed a slice of pizza from a table full of food.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the ethics committee's formal name, distributed gift-rule guidance to lawmakers last November that said the $49.99 limit "cannot be evaded by ... averaging the expense of gifts given to more than one member or staff person."

The charity rule would allow any organization certified as a charity by the Internal Revenue Service to pay for travel and lodging for events sponsored by the group. Currently, a House member must pay for his own transportation and hotel.

The prohibition was adopted to discourage lawmakers from attending charitable events at resorts, amounting to a free vacation.

Don Simon, acting president of Common Cause, said the perishable food rule would create "an easy avenue around the gift rule. It's really a proposal that's in bad faith. To surface this on the day Congress opens gets the House off on a very bad foot."

Simon said the charity provision "re-creates the abuse of the sham vacation for members in the guise of charitable events."

"There's a long record of abuse, which led to adoption of the rule in the first place," he said.

The ethics committee last November, in its gift-rule guidance, warned that regardless of value, a gift must be refused "if the person offering it has a direct interest in the particular legislation on which staff is working at the time."

"Acceptance of the food in that circumstance may implicate the illegal gratuities statute, which prohibits the acceptance of any gift for or because of an official act," the committee said.

Lobbyists normally would provide meals to the committees working on their clients' issues.