WASHINGTON -- It will be small consolation to the thousands of federal employees furloughed as a result of the government shutdown, but one surprising byproduct has come from Capitol Hill in the course of the latest demonstration of congressional gridlock.
The overwhelming vote of 422-6 in the House of Representatives for a complete ban on gifts to members of the House and their staffs can be attributed in part to the members' awareness that the shutdown fiasco has made them look like a pack of lunkheads to the folks back home.
If timing in politics is everything, this certainly was the time to get the stout legislators on the record on their willingness or unwillingness to give up the goodies. The House ban has no exclusions, so if expense-minded hosts care to continue having three-martini lunches with House members, presumably it'll have to be Dutch treat.
But, as Democratic Rep. Pat Williams of Montana points out, his colleagues have changed the House rules, not any law, and so they will be policing themselves -- a situation that he says will produce some "slaps on the wrist" but no real prohibition. He calls the ban, which he voted against, "a legislative scam."
The Senate earlier this year voted more modest limits on its members -- no gifts worth more than $50 at one time or more than a total of $100 from one source in any year. With the House members now going cold turkey, the pressure certainly will mount on the good senators to do the same.
Off the bandwagon
Considering the low state in which Congress is held by voters, during the government shutdown particularly, the wonder is not so much that 422 House members swallowed the complete gift ban as that six of them -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- voted against it. Four others, all Democrats, didn't vote, which in itself is a surprise, since the people's servants seldom pass up a chance to endorse motherhood.
Stiffening the backbones of five of the six naysayers on derailing the gravy train may have been the fact that they all come from districts in which they were easy winners in the 1994 elections. According to Congressional Quarterly, here's the vote each got: Democrats Edolphus Towns of New York, 88.8 percent; Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, 85.6 percent; Republicans John Myers of Indiana, 64.9 percent; Peter King of New York, 59.4 percent; Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, who ran unopposed.
Mr. King says he voted against the ban because it's "hypocritical," interfering with his ability to represent his district by going to an occasional meal with constituents and others with whom he has to do business. The ban won't hurt him in one sense because, he says facetiously, "I don't play golf and I eat junk food."
But when a group of insurance agents from his district comes to Washington once a year and wants to take him to dinner, he says, it's hard to say no. And he can't pay for himself, even if they were willing, he says, when they insist on talking him "to the best restaurant in town" and the bill comes to $100 a pop. Instead of the flat ban, Mr. King says, he favors "full disclosure" of the cost of anything given to him, including meals.
A short-term headache
Mr. Williams, the only one of the six House members who voted against the ban who had a close race in 1994 (he won with only 48.6 percent in a three-candidate contest), acknowledges his vote may cause him a short-term political headache in 1996. But he says that "once the public figures this out and realizes that offenders will only get a slap on the wrist" from their colleagues, he will be vindicated.
Mr. Williams says that in talking to House colleagues on the morning after the vote, many were surprised to learn they had voted only for a House rule that they themselves would oversee, not a truly enforceable law. Maybe they were surprised -- and maybe they weren't. At any rate, he says, approval of the House rule against gifts will make it "virtually impossible" now to enact the kind of law that will have real teeth in it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.