The House Just Says No--at Last : Far-reaching ban on gifts is first such revision for the lower chamber in half a century
Sumptuous meals at pricey Washington eateries. Unlimited golf outings at posh country clubs. Expensive vacations at ski slopes or tropical locales, all paid for by lobbyists eager to curry favor. These were the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the U.S. Congress, a legacy passed down to each new class of lawmakers. Over time and despite public consternation, these payoffs--politely called gifts--became as much a part of Capitol Hill culture as Robert’s Rules of Order.
Last week, the House of Representatives--finally--moved to the side of the angels. With mutual courage, and fear of a throw-the-rascals-out electorate, the members closed a loathsome chapter of congressional history. And they should be applauded.
By a 422-to-6 vote, the representatives slammed an outright ban onto all treats and treasure from anyone other than a relative or personal friend. Those D.C. dinners, Redskin tickets, fishing vacations--all gone.
The vote was the first revision of House gift rules in half a century, and went even further than a commendable gift ban voted by U.S. senators earlier this year. The House rules, for instance, forbid contributions to members’ legal defense funds and foundations, familiar hideaways for “charitable” assets.
Speaker Newt Gingrich, who previously resisted efforts to bring the gift ban legislation to the floor, rose to the occasion for the new-look House. “You didn’t get the gifts before you were a member of Congress,” he told his colleagues, “and you’re not going to get the gifts after you leave. So let’s just end it.” Simple. Achievable.
The Senate action, a change but hardly bold, requires limits of no more than $50 for meals and $100 from any one source over the course of a year.
The hard line was championed by freshman Republicans like Sam Brownback (Kan.), Linda Smith (Wash.) and Enid Greene Waldholtz (Utah), as well as senior members like Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). “There is simply no reason any of us need to go on vacations, be taken out to dinner or be given expensive gifts paid for by lobbyists,” said Shays. Well, there may have been a reason, a wrong one, but apparently it’s no longer valid in Congress. Some, of course, haven’t got the message. Republican Dan Burton of Indiana, for instance, proposed an exemption for lobbyist-financed trips to charity sports events.
The House action marks progress, in the glare of a critical nation. Now Congress needs to get tough with the big money. When will it take on campaign finance reform? Mr. Speaker?