Congressional Republicans over the past eight years have systematically weakened their own landmark ban on gifts from lobbyists, making it easy for lawmakers and staffs to get free meals, sports tickets, golfing trips and other favors from people paid to influence their decision-making.
House Republicans -- who instituted a total ban on gifts in 1995 with great fanfare after capturing Congress -- have incrementally relaxed the ethics rules so that members and their staffs can accept $100 in meals each year from each lobbyist and watch Washington Wizards basketball games and rock concerts from luxury skyboxes valued to fit just under their $50-per-event limit on tickets.
A new rule passed by House Republicans this month on a party line vote might stretch the loophole considerably further. It allows lawmakers and their aides to once again accept free trips to golf courses and free meals catered to their offices from corporations and other special interests.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) believes the gift-ban rules needed to be "clarified" so members and staffers could accept low-cost meals and help charities by flying to fundraisers, said his spokesman, John Feehery. Hastert does not believe members and staff will be unduly influenced by special interests who pick up their dinner tab, Feehery said.
By relaxing the gift ban, Republicans have provided corporations, labor unions and other interest groups many new avenues -- which are closed to ordinary Americans -- to try to influence lawmakers and their staffs. Lobbyists footing the bill often get coveted face time with key lawmakers and their aides.
"As gifts are given, meals are paid for and vacations subsidized, these favors build up and it's just human nature members and staff will be responsive to those doing the favors," said Don Simon, acting president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that monitors congressional ethics. "It's not how government business is supposed to be conducted."
In 1995, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and most other House Republicans said they felt the same way. They ridiculed Democrats such as former Banking Committee chairman Fernand St. Germain (R.I.) for taking gifts from people paid to influence them, and instituted a complete ban on gifts to highlight their commitment to cleaning up government.
Since then, Republican leaders have chipped away at their reforms. First they replaced the absolute ban in 1999 with a $50 per gift limit and $100 cap on total gifts from one source in a year. Then taking a cue from Senate Republicans, the GOP-controlled House ethics committee allowed the MCI Center in downtown Washington to value seats in skyboxes just under $50.
Corporations lease skyboxes year-round for many thousands of dollars, and only their guests may use them. Therefore it's difficult to determine a fair-market price for one skybox seat for one event. The MCI Center says nearby club-level seats generally cost $90 for a ballgame.
Now even a key Republican worries that the party is going too far by allowing House members to take free trips to charity events and accept free, catered meals.
"I see my job as to keep people out of trouble," said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House ethics committee. "We don't want to have the impression, nor the reality, that we're trying to weasel around ways to live high at someone else's expense."
Hefley said he was blindsided earlier this month when Hastert decided to weaken the gift ban without consulting him. At the behest of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Hastert drafted what Hefley and others worry might become the biggest loophole in the gift ban yet: allowing members to take all-expense-paid trips to charity fundraising events. The 1995 gift ban outlawed such trips because the practice was routinely abused.
Under the new rule, which passed 221-203, a corporation could anonymously underwrite a charity event on the greens of, say, Pebble Beach in Northern California and provide accommodations at a five-star resort. The corporation then could send its top executives and lobbyists to the event for a weekend of schmoozing with lawmakers.
"That is open to enormous abuse if we are not careful," said Hefley. "I don't want sham charities out there so congressmen have a nice vacation at a resort." Even before the rules changed, corporations and other special interests were allowed to finance fact-finding or educational trips. While the trips are ostensibly for educational purposes, members and staff are frequently treated to expensive meals and housed in posh resorts.
Under the new rule, companies, such as tobacco makers, that are reluctant to lobby openly could fund trips without the public knowing they paid for it by funneling money through a charity. Some lobbyists said they already have held private meetings to discuss ways to exploit the new loopholes.
A top GOP fundraiser said he and other Republicans would join other charities or create their own to sponsor golfing events, because the cost of such events is high. In the past, he said, fundraisers often paid for such events with "soft money" contributions, the unlimited donations that corporations, unions and individuals made to national parties before they were banned under the new campaign finance law.
"Charities are going to replace the soft-dollar events for fundraising, no question about it," said the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.
This fundraiser, who emphasized that charities would still profit from the events, said the rule might also provide a new way of underwriting the lavish parties at presidential nominating conventions. "We're going to have an awful lot of charity events at this convention," he said. "It's the only way we can pay for it."
Republican leaders drafted the rule at DeLay's request so that he could fly colleagues to his annual golf tournament in Texas, which raises money for his foundation for foster children. Scores of corporate lobbyists attend the event. Their contributions will allow DeLay's foundation to fly in more members of Congress for the tournament, said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.
Roy said DeLay's staff tailored the rule's language narrowly so members could not use it to travel to Professional Golfers' Association events, even though the PGA has a charitable arm.
But a GOP lobbyist close to DeLay said the majority leader knows his charity won't be the biggest winner. "We will all drive a Mack truck through this loophole," the lobbyist said. He predicted younger lawmakers who don't have the big budgets that leaders like DeLay have will be most attracted to the free vacations that corporations plan to provide.
In truth, one of Washington's worst-kept secrets is that many House members and staff show little regard for ethics rules, since they're difficult to police and rarely enforced. Many legislators complain that ethics rules are confusing and unfairly restrictive. Hastert used this argument to push through a new rule that allows lobbyists to cater meals to members and staff even if they are working on legislation the lobbyist is trying to influence.
Hastert had a personal stake in this change: The ethics committee last fall cautioned members against taking meals from lobbyists after The Washington Post reported that Clark & Weinstock, a lobbying firm that represents pharmaceutical firms, delivered a meal to the speaker's office the night the House was voting on prescription drug legislation. Feehery calls it the "pizza rule," saying the beneficiaries will be low-paid staffers seeking a late-night snack.
But the change was written in a way that will allow lobbyists to send House members much fancier fare.
Under the old rule, members could accept up to $50 worth of food from a lobbyist for one meal, and no more than $100 for the year. Now members can add up all the people in the office who plan on eating and divide the cost among them. In other words, if there are 20 members and staffers in the room, lobbyists could send about $1,000 worth of lobster or other perishable foods.
Simon of Common Cause said members can use "Enron-type accounting" to "game" the meal limits.