The Senate Ethics Committee, set up recently to enforce the new code of ethics the senate passed last week, found itself in the position yesterday of having to waive a provision of the new code at its very first meeting.
The waiver was necessary, committee members believe, in order to allow a dozen members of Congress to leave for China on Thursday with a clear conscience, knowing they are technically not violating the new code.
The Chinese, who issued the invitation through the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, have some pretty strict rules and one of them is that they insist on paying all the accommodations and travel expenses of an official delegation traveling in their country.
That, however, conflicts with the new ethics code, which prohibits senators and House members from accepting gifts of over $100 in aggregate value from any foreign national acting on behalf of a foreign organization or government.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) thought they did not heed a waiver. "This is different in that the invitation came to us through the White House," Byrd said.
But Ken Gray, staff director of the Senate Ethics Committee headed by Adlai Stevenson (D-Ill.), said the senators thought the situation was so unclear that granting the waiver was the best thing to do.
He said there was an exemption for senators participating in educational programs aborad but wasn't sure it applied.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to resolve the issue of such visits and report back by July 1, Gray said, but in the meantime the senators voted unanimously yesterday to grant the waiver.
Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said his committee would meet today and probably take some action, such as writing as advisory opinion, exemption such trips.
Preyer thought it was clear they would be in violation of the code, but added, "We'll have to do something. The code wasn't intended to prevent that kind of travel."