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Congress to Say `No' To Lobbyists' Gifts, But Image Remains

FOR members of Congress, there will be no more free lunch. Or fruit baskets, or corporate-paid trips to charity golfing tournaments, or any other gifts from lobbyists worth more than $20.

That, at least, is where the Senate is heading when it votes May 11 on legislation to cut dramatically the amount of money lobbyists can spend on members of Congress.

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After the Senate passes the gift ban, as expected, it will have to reconcile its bill with a House version passed in March that contains some important differences. But congressional aides and others who follow money on Capitol Hill say they expect a law to be passed this year.

In the end, though, will the public see a real change in the way members do business?

``I don't think influence-peddling will come to a standstill,'' says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a research group. ``Change is incremental; it's not a panacea.''

The public may be misled into thinking the gift ban will bring major change to the ways of Capitol Hill, but the slowness of change could further deepen the cynicism the public feels about Congress.

The members, too, may be misled about the impact of their gift-banning move on the public's image of Congress (especially with an indictment of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois expected soon). In their public remarks, many members have cited public perceptions of Congress as a reason for passing such legislation.

Last week, for example, Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine called the bill ``a very important step'' in Congress's effort ``to restore the perception of integrity'' to the institution.

But it remains unclear how much the public is paying attention to this legislation. What members do know is that, law or no law, none ever wants to be caught again secretly videotaped on a television magazine show in their swim trunks at a Caribbean resort cavorting with a corporate lobbyist, as some member were.

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A former congressional aide with long experience calls the focus on gifts from lobbyists ``a straw man.'' No member of Congress votes a certain way just because a lobbyist took him to dinner or to a Redskins football game, says the aide, who calls the gifts just a ``part of the tribal ritual of schmoozing.'' The real influence-peddling comes in the form of campaign contributions, he adds.

Mike Mawby, a lobbyist for the group Common Cause, which favors public financing of campaigns, cautions against minimizing the potential impact of the gift ban. ``Consider the fact that by next January, half of the House will be in its first or second terms,'' he says, implying that such a large turnover in membership could create a new Capitol Hill culture with a new way of doing business that the gift ban could help foster.

Meanwhile, no one knows just how much is spent on gifts to members of Congress, because the expenditures are ``not disclosed in any serious way,'' says Mr. Mawby. But in raising concerns about the impact of the legislation on Washington enterprises, bill opponent Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska gave a somewhat hyperbolic impression of lobbyists' generosity. He predicted that the Kennedy Center, the city's big performing arts center, will ``fold up'' if lobbyists don't buy tickets and that 90 percent of the city's restaurants would close. Washington restaurateurs, for their part, have circulated a petition warning of layoffs and closures if the bill is passed.

Opponents of the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, complain that its provisions are so complicated that members could ruin their careers because of innocent mistake. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas also pointed out during floor debate that, if this bill became law, a lobbyist could still walk into a senator's office and hand him a campaign contribution of $5,000, but could not take him out for a $25 lunch.

A key difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill centers on who is responsible for making sure a gift is legal. The Senate bill bars members from accepting gifts worth more than $20, while the House would bar lobbyists from offering illegal gifts. The bills also differ on the question of lobbyist financing of travel to charity events.

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