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March 9, 2006
Thou Shalt Not Eat With Thine Lobbyists

No doubt Congress needs to set ethical standards and hold members accountable to them in regard to their relationships with lobbyists, especially when it comes to gifts, travel, and contributions. The prevailing attitude that our representatives can be bought produces a corrosive cynicism in the American electorate that decreases the enthusiasm for oversight and actually increases the opportunities for corruption. However, it's hard to take this effort seriously when it starts by forcing politicians to pick up the tab for dinner:

Facing accusations that lawmakers are not serious about breaking the tight bond between Capitol Hill and K Street, the Senate voted Wednesday to bar members of Congress and their aides from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists.

The meals and gifts ban, approved unanimously by voice vote, was the full Senate's first major decision on lobbying law changes in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. The ban is attached to an underlying bill that originally barred just gifts, but senators decided Wednesday to prohibit meals as well.

The move suggests that, with the November elections looming, lawmakers are intensely concerned with demonstrating they are committed to changing the way Washington does business. But the vote will not put an immediate end to the wining and dining of members of Congress, because the ban still faces several legislative hurdles, including passage by the House, where the Republican leadership is wrestling with the details of its own lobbying bill.

"Banning free meals, while only one of many steps, can go a long way in demonstrating our commitment to reform," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and the provision's chief author. "The only special interest in Washington should be the public interest."

Congress already had a restriction on meals that limited the value of any freebie to $50 or less. In the spirit of capitalism and free markets, the DC restaurant industry responded with a wide variety and selection of meals priced at $49.99, a move which restores faith in our privately-controlled economic system. Now that lobbyists will no longer be able to even buy a Senator a Big Mac, restaurants inside the Beltway now wonder just how badly their business will suffer.

If this kind of picayune rulemaking represents the kind of effort we can expect from Congress to rehabilitate the lobbyist-politician relationship, be prepared for even more Abramoff-type scandals. No one cares if Abramoff bought people meals. No one will sell out a seat that requires millions to capture and retain and which pays six figures in salary for a $49 steak. What we want is an elimination of the kind of intervention that Harry Reid, for example, provided Abramoff clients four times in connection with thousands of dollars in donations.

Memo to Congress: either get serious or stop insulting our intelligence. The meal ban won't hurt anyone except DC restaraunteurs, but it's about as minor an issue in lobbying and corruption as one could possibly find. Don't expect the American public to applaud this kind of "reform" as any real change in the way Washington conducts business.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 9, 2006 6:37 AM

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