House Republicans unraveled some of their strict ethic rules Tuesday, passing changes that would allow charities to give lawmakers free travel and lodging at resorts and make it easier for lobbyists to send free food to congressional offices.
The move by the Republican leadership was hidden so well it even caught leaders of the House Ethics Committee by surprise. A Republican leadership aide called the changes cosmetic, but Democrats characterized them as a serious erosion of ethical standards.
The revisions were part of a package of rule changes that passed on a 221-203 party-line vote. A Democratic effort to kill the revisions lost, 225 to 200.
"The Republican majority made much of past abuses in this body," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) in the House's first debate of the 108th Congress. "Yet, now that the Republicans believe they have a safe and secure majority for the foreseeable future, they want to undo some of the significant strides that were made."
John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, called the changes clarifications.
Republicans imposed strict ethic rules after taking over the House in 1995, following 40 years of Democratic control and many ethic investigations of members.