The Senate, in an election-year effort to refurbish the image of lawmakers, Wednesday overwhelmingly approved the strictest gift-reform measure ever passed by either house of Congress.
Voting 95 to 4, the chamber banned virtually all gifts, meals, travel and entertainment paid for by lobbyists, special-interest groups and even ordinary constituents. The principal exceptions are for modest meals and entertainment in a lawmaker’s home state or district and gifts from relatives or longtime personal friends.
In supporting the ban, many senators said they hoped to enhance the image of Congress, which has been sullied by exposes showing lawmakers cavorting with lobbyists on golfing trips or at Caribbean resorts.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chief sponsor of the legislation, said the vote “should help restore confidence in Congress and demonstrate that we’re not too cozy with lobbyists.”
A joint Senate-House conference committee must now reconcile the Senate’s near-total gift ban with a slightly less restrictive version passed by the House in March.
Levin predicted disputes in the conference committee over several details and called the Senate vote “a significant step but not the final step.”
The House-passed bill restricts benefits from lobbyists and their clients but does not prohibit gifts from others--as the Senate measure does. It also allows some controversial practices to continue, including gifts of travel to charity golf and tennis tournaments and meals paid for by lobbyists’ clients, both of which are banned under the Senate legislation.
Levin said the ban on gift travel to corporate-sponsored charity events probably would produce the most sparks in the conference committee. Under the Senate measure, members of Congress still could participate in charity golf tournaments but only if they paid for their own travel and lodging.
A number of senators complained during debate on the legislation that the ban on gifts of travel and lodging could harm worthwhile charities in their home states. But after failing last week to amend the measure on that point, most joined in approving the package.
But Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), one of four who voted against the measure, called the legislation “an insult to Congress.”
“What we do is a matter between ourselves and our constituents,” Wallop said. “But these rules suggest that we can’t trust ourselves.”
Others who voted against the ban, citing similar reasons, were Sens. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska). Murkowski, declaring that reform of political campaigns is more important, sponsored a successful amendment last week to prohibit senators from accepting donations from political action committees.
Both Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, California’s Democratic senators, voted in favor of the package. One member, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), was absent.
The restrictions are aimed at all Senate staff employees as well as elected members in an effort to guarantee that lobbyists cannot heap favors, for example, on the chief counsel of an important committee.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who sponsored an unsuccessful amendment last week that would have watered down the restrictions, voted for the bill. But he complained that the complexities in the bill, such as exempting gifts from friends, would overburden Senate ethics experts and eventually damage the reputations of honest members.
Levin acknowledged after the vote that some members may try to find loopholes in the gift ban by claiming gift-givers as longtime friends.
The overall intent of the legislation is to prohibit members and aides from accepting gifts of any value--such as bottles of liquor, free tickets to sporting events or meals at posh Washington restaurants--from people other than relatives or close personal friends. Gifts worth $250 or more from friends would have to be approved by House or Senate ethics committees.
While some said the ban eventually could alter the dining, night life and traveling habits of many lawmakers, Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), an outspoken advocate of the new rules, disagreed.
“I don’t see an amazing shift,” Cohen told reporters after the vote. He said he rejects “the whole notion that lawmakers spend most of their time having lunch with lobbyists.”
Most senators said Congress must act to correct the public’s perception that members are too close to lobbyists and special-interest groups, whether or not that image is justified. They said they fear an election-year backlash if nothing is done.
On the theory that most frowned-upon “wining and dining” takes place in Washington, the Senate legislation generally allows members to accept meals and entertainment from business people or other constituents in their home states or districts, as long as the gifts are not from a registered lobbyist.
Lawmakers also would be permitted to accept modest trinkets, such as ballpoint pens emblazoned with an organization’s emblem, or such home-state products as oranges or avocados.
The legislation would also double, to two years, the “cooling-off period” during which former top-level congressional and executive branch officials would be barred from lobbying their former colleagues. The legislation would also bar top federal trade negotiators from lobbying members of Congress or the executive branch for 10 years.
Senate passage drew immediate praise from Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, the citizens lobby.
“There is far too much money flowing from far too many interest groups,” Wertheimer said. “This closes down one central form of the spigot.”