THIS WEEK will test once again just how serious the new Republican Congress is about cleaning up Washington. The issue is whether to ban a particularly lurid form of graft: lavish dining and golf, ski or tennis trips and other vacations given by corporate and wealthy interests tomembers of Congress.
Last fall, Republicans campaigned hard against what they called the corrupt Democratic Congress. Now they have a choice: They can either clean up the Democrats' trough, or they can plunge into it themselves. Regrettably, it looks like they are going to do the latter.
Legislative graft has a long history in America. To this day, many members of Congress avail themselves of a swank and luxurious lifestyle filled with epicurean meals and posh vacations paid for by special interest lobbyists who are seeking legislative favors. This is one waylobbyists work their influence on votes, and how the hidden income of members of Congress swells to a capacity limited only by greed and the size of the human stomach.
Fortunately, such ill-gotten gains are under threat of extinction; stringent legislation prohibiting these corrupting gifts of meals and vacations will come to the Senate floor by Friday.
Not that the Senate graft caucus will let their corruptive perks be abolished without a fight. Their delight in things luxurious was best explained by former Louisiana Gov. Richard Leche, just before he was imprisoned for corruption in the 1930s. Leche said, "When I took the oath of governor, I didn't take any vows of poverty." That sentiment is still much revered and cherished on Capitol Hill. Many of today's members of Congress believe their $133,600 annual salaries, alongwith generous pensions, perquisites and gifts, is just not enough lucre for their overstuffed congressional wallets.
And so, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., during the debate on gift reform last year, asked Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.: "Do you say you should not go to the symphony ball, ambassador ball, National Guard, the opera ball, what have you?" Mr. Wellstone replied, "I would say you can go to any opera you want to; you pay for it. Just like the regular people pay for it when they go to the opera. It's that simple."
Gearing up to defend these loophole-ridden, permissive gift rules is Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has introduced so-called gift reform legislation that ought to be titled the "Save Our Perks Act of 1995." Mr. McConnell's bill places no limit on gifts and meals that a lobbyist or anyone else can give a senator, provided that no single gift or meal is worth more than $100. And even worse, the bill doesn't even forbid lobbyists or others from handing out golf, ski or tennis trips and vacations to members of Congress.
Like the two-day tennis vacation senators John Breaux, D-La., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., took to Boca Raton, Fla., last year, courtesy of U.S. Tobacco. Or last year's three-day golf trip for Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., at Pebble Beach, Calif., provided by AT&T.; Or the three days Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, spent in Palm Springs, Calif., courtesy of U.S. Telephone.
The real Senate champions of gift reform are Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Mr. Wellstone; William Cohen, R-Maine; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and John McCain, R-Ariz. Their bill, S. 101, would prohibit members of Congress and congressional staff from accepting:
* Meals and other gifts from registered lobbyists, except informational materials and foodstuffs of nominal value. Current rules allow unlimited numbers of meals at unlimited cost in Washington.
* Golf, ski, tennis trips or other vacations.
* Gifts of more than $20 from anyone, except close personal friends, family and informational materials. Current rules allow gifts of up to $250 per year per source, but gifts of less than $100 are not counted against the limit.
This legislation needs your support. Gift graft won't be banned from Washington without a boost from citizens who demand a change in the corrupting congressional gift rules. So give your senators a call today. Tell them you support strict congressional gift reform, and S. 101. The congressional switchboard phone number is (202) 224-3121.
Ralph Nader is a nationally known consumer advocate.