Public office invites private gratuities from favor seekers, and too often elected officials are ready to grab the offered goodies with both hands. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Washington, a city whose 13,500 listed lobbyists regularly provide members of Congress with free vacations, free meals and campaign contributions to gain for their clients the ears and frequently the votes of the people's representatives.
The basic lobbying regulations under which Congress operates were written 50 years ago. Those rules have been ludicrously ineffective. Two months ago the Senate unanimously adopted strong and on the whole reasonable restrictions on the nature and value of the gifts its members could receive, essentially the same restrictions blocked last year by a Republican filibuster.
The House leadership had planned to defer taking up the gift-ban issue until next year. Now, thanks largely to bipartisan internal pressure, the House says it will act on the matter this fall. Suddenly, the prospect of a Congress that might--just might--be less susceptible to special-interest lobbying pressures is brighter.
The House can do much worse than take the Senate's resolution as its model. Beginning Jan. 1, senators can no longer vacation at lobbyists' expense or take charity golf and ski trips that they don't pay for themselves. They can't accept any free meal that costs more than $50 or take more than $100 worth of gifts from any one source over the course of a year. Lobbyists are barred from contributing to a senator's legal defense fund or a charity affiliated with a senator or a Senate aide.
Almost simultaneously, and again on a unanimous vote, the Senate acted to overhaul the 1946 lobbying act. Its new measure defines a lobbyist as anyone who spends at least 20% of his or her time lobbying Congress or the executive branch. It requires registration of lobbyists who receive at least $5,000 from any single client in a six-month period. And, maybe most important of all, it imposes strict disclosure requirements so the public record will show who lobbied whom, for what, and how much was spent.
The House shouldn't have to debate long on this responsible approach to cleaning up the perpetual scandal of special-interest access and favoritism. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during the July debate, " . . . we do not need tickets to lavish balls to do our jobs . . . we do not need $100 gift baskets . . . [or] unlimited expensive free meals to do our jobs." No, indeed. What Congress does need is a common-sense code to allow it to say no to the temptations lobbyists offer. The Senate has adopted such a code. There's no excuse for the House not to swiftly follow.