As soon as lawmakers arrived in Washington last week, they got down to important business. Trying to curb the deficit? Better campaign finance reform? A prescription drug plan? Nope, the House Republicans tackled a really tough reform issue -- loosening the ethics rules that govern their conduct. They sneaked two provisions into a package of rules changes approved on a straight party-line vote that allow lobbyists to, well, cater to them.
The first provision is known as the "pizza rule" because it allows staffers and interns to take free food from lobbyists. A spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has stated that it will allow staffers to "eat pizza ethically" when they're working late nights. It certainly gives new meaning to the term "feeding frenzy" because the old rule was that the gift value of food to a member ran up against a single $49.99 ceiling and a $99.99 annual limit from a single source.
Now, the value of a meal is divided by the number of the participants, making it truly a case of the more the merrier. But the potential for social ostracism is high: Who's going to be the official Grinch in the group who ensures that there's a reliable count? Will he get an extra chicken leg if he promises to juggle the numbers upward?
The other provision permits House lawmakers to go on, say, golf trips financed by organizations that the Internal Revenue Service has classified as charities. No one wants to begrudge a hard-working congressman a nice vacation, but it shouldn't be funded by lobbyists looking for a break on legislation. The lawmakers who backed these provisions know that, which is why they didn't openly debate them.
Democrats are outraged, but it's not as though they've been pure. In May 1989, Democrat Jim Wright of Texas resigned as speaker of the House, done in by a string of allegations about gifts and outside income. And the GOP was able to topple the Democratic majority after 40 years in the wilderness in 1994 partly because of public disgust with ethics violations.
But it's precisely the reforms that the Republicans instituted in 1995 that they're now watering down. As the GOP becomes more immersed in power, the House Republicans are forgetting the lessons of the past about the dangers of perks.