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House Accepts Ban on All Gifts From Public

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to ban its members from accepting virtually any gift of value--a bold move that both Republican and Democratic legislators hope will reassure the public that members of Congress cannot be bought with a free golf outing or a steak dinner.

Pushed on by freshman lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, the House endorsed a proposal by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and went far beyond a gift reform measure approved last summer by the Senate.

The House voted 422 to 8 in favor of an outright ban on all gifts from anyone other than a friend or relative.

Gingrich, explaining his sweeping amendment to a crowd of applauding lawmakers, said Congress had “an obligation” to change its internal rules both “decisively and clearly.”

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“The rule ought to be no gifts,” he declared. “You didn’t get the gifts before you were a member of Congress and you’re not going to get the gifts after you leave. So let’s just end it.”

Under the new House rules, gone will be gratis trips to island resorts, sports tickets and elaborate Washington dinners, the very kind of freebies that have led to humiliating news stories for many members of Congress and that the new Republican freshmen vowed this year to end.

House members and their staffs will be allowed to receive gifts from friends and relatives worth more than $250, as long as they are approved by the House Ethics Committee.

But any other large gifts now must be sent back or given to charity.

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Even small items such as T-shirts and baseball caps have been banned.

In contrast, the Senate last July adopted its own rules that fell shorter. They limited free meals, show tickets and lavish gifts. But the senators, their families and their staffs will still be allowed to accept individual gifts valued at $50 or less, with one individual allowed to give gifts totaling a maximum of $100 a year.

Because the gift regulations are internal rules in both chambers, they require no further action.

It was the new legislators, most of them freshmen swept into office in last year’s Republican landslide, who saw the House vote as a key signal to the public that Congress can clean its own house.

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“People simply don’t trust the system,” said Rep. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who has emerged as a leading spokesman for the GOP freshmen. “So we’ve got to change the system. Just say no to gifts. Ban them. And let’s start re-establishing public trust in this body.”

Across the aisle, freshman Democrat Nancy Rivers from Michigan said an “aye” vote for the Gingrich proposal “is both bipartisan and reflective of our need to put ethics first.”

“This is really the de-imperialism of Congress,” she said. “But this is not revolutionary. This is not unreasonable. This is not burdensome. This is simply the right thing to do.”

But other lawmakers, during earlier debate on another measure that would have established a gift disclosure rule instead of a gift ban, said a blanket ban was not needed. They argued that most members of Congress are honest and cannot be bought for a free lunch.

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They also noted that the House Ethics Committee is already in place to deal with Congress members who are on the take.

“Who are we answerable to? Who put us here?” asked Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who called for a complete disclosure of gifts rather than the ban.

“Our constituents did. So what is wrong with simply disclosing everything to them?” he said.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) backed Burton, saying that banning gifts entirely would hurt large charitable fund-raisers. For example, he said that under Gingrich’s plan, he would be precluded from accepting free travel, meals and accommodations to a children’s charity event he signed up for next month. He said the real loser is the charity, which is counting on his presence at the event to help raise funds.

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But the overwhelming majority supporting the all-out ban said it is the appearance of influence for sale that digs at the public’s trust in the political process.

Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) told the story of how she used to be a judge before coming to Congress three years ago.

“How could you leave the bench to go to that sleazy place?” her mother had asked her.

“Now,” the congresswoman told her House colleagues, “that was my own mother. And unfortunately, I don’t think my mother was the only person in America who held this institution in such low esteem.”

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