Back when I was a reporter covering the Maryland General Assembly, I noticed a close vote would sometimes be preceded by a last-minute rush of gubernatorial aides bearing gifts for members of the legislature. The trinkets -- often cufflinks or tie clips with the governor's seal -- were nothing much, but they seemed to do the trick. But if I asked a particular legislator about his gift, he would invariably huff, "Do you think I would sell my vote for cufflinks?" I would always say no, but I always thought yes. Why else would the governor bother?
I think the same thing about gifts received by members of Congress. They, too, deny that gifts influence their votes -- and theirs are no boardwalk souvenirs. A congressman can, if he wishes, live the life of a party girl -- wined, dined and given mad money just for showing his pretty face. With congressmen, though, the cash is called an honorarium.
For instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last year went on an 11-day tour through the Southwest, including stops in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Palm Springs and San Diego. Everywhere McConnell went, a special-interest group -- defense contractors, psychiatric hospitals, the electronics industry, the liquor industry -- picked up the tab. In addition to presumably returning with a nice tan, McConnell had to lug home $10,500 in honoraria.
There is really nothing exceptional about McConnell. A perusal of congressional records by Thomas Edsall of The Post shows McConnell merely did what's routine in Congress -- accept honoraria and gifts from industries, firms or lobbyists with business before Congress. Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), for instance, earned $30,040 in speaking fees last year, almost all of it coming from banking and savings-and-loan groups. Garn, you will not be surprised to learn, was chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
There is absolutely nothing illegal about receiving either honorariums or gifts. It merely stinks. Last year, the rules of the Senate entitled its members to keep $30,040 in speaking fees. Anything in excess had to be turned over to charity. (McConnell donated $7,360 to his own church.) In the House, the rules permitted members to keep $22,530, with the rest going to charity. For some members of Congress, we are hardly talking petty cash. Last year, more than half the senators got more than a quarter of their earned income from honoraria. It can send a kid to college.
Common sense asserts that special interests would not spend money in such a fashion if they did not think they were getting something for it. (Their lobbyists are the last people who need lectures on productivity.) But a hard, squinting scrutiny of the record shows only a few instances where members of Congress voted as if gifts made the difference. Indeed, there are plenty of examples in which congressmen who were wined and dined by a certain group later turned around and voted against them.
So what's wrong with congressmen accepting gifts? Plenty. In the first place, a vote or a voting record is only one way of measuring the pernicious influence of money. The others cannot be measured at all. The first is access. You may not be able to get your congressman on the phone, but offer him a weekend at a golf resort and a $1,500 honorarium for making a speech he's made a hundred times before, and he'll not only come -- he'll listen. Money, as you might have heard, talks.
Second, there is no way to measure what effect gifts might have: a speech not made, a bill not introduced, a measure not co-sponsored. Few congressmen would be so foolish as to vote against their constituency's interests or to allow a gift to sway them on an important issue. But it's a lot easier not to introduce a bill, not to co-sponsor one that has already been introduced or not to call a hearing if you are a committee chairman. Inaction can be as important as action, especially -- as is often the case -- if it's the status quo special interests want to protect.
Gifts and honoraria are not totally pernicious. They lubricate the information process, prompting some congressmen to meet with groups they ordinarily might not meet with. But the benefits are outweighed by the suspicions raised. Congressmen are not a special breed for whom money and gifts mean nothing, but ordinary people bound to be influenced by money and gifts that come their way. They may say, as did members of the Maryland legislature, that they cannot be influenced, but others clearly think differently: Lobbyists for one and, increasingly, a troubled public