WASHINGTON — Senators would have to go Dutch when wining and dining with lobbyists under a provision approved Wednesday as part of a pending ethics reform bill.
Senators are currently permitted to let lobbyists pick up the tab for meals worth less than $50, and the bill as originally written would have required public disclosure by the lawmakers of such payments.
But a group of Republicans and Democrats pushed for the amendment to bar senators or their aides from accepting any meal from a lobbyist, arguing that the prohibition would send an important message. The provision was adopted by a voice vote.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said that although senators were unlikely to sell their votes for the price of a meal, a larger principle was at stake.
"In cities and towns all across America, people pay for their own lunches and their own dinners," Obama said.
"People who make far less than we do. People who can't afford their medical bills or their mortgages or their kids' tuition. You ask them if they think that the people they send to Congress should be able to rack up a $50 meal on a lobbyist's dime."
The bill already included a prohibition on senators accepting gifts from lobbyists.
Officials with some watchdog groups said the amendment's approval underscored that although Congress might be willing to take superficial steps to clean up its image, it was unwilling to grapple with the real source of influence exerted by lobbyists -- campaign contributions they are able to generate for lawmakers through their contacts and clients.
Roberta Baskin, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said, " I think most of the American people already expected their representatives to pay their own way. But there are much more serious issues than that.... It's chump change when you compare it to much bigger-ticket items, like campaign finance."
The bill the Senate is debating is designed to tighten restrictions on the access lobbyists have to lawmakers and increase the public scrutiny of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill. It was sparked, in part, by scandals surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who helped funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to lawmakers in both parties, and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).
In January, Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and engaging in schemes to bribe members of Congress. Cunningham pleaded guilty last fall to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes; he resigned his seat and last week was sentenced to more than eight years in jail.
The watchdog groups have said the cases illustrate the need for significant changes in campaign finance laws and the creation of an independent office that could initiate investigations of possible misdeeds by lawmakers. But so far, neither the Senate bill nor similar legislation anticipated in the House would take the steps urged by the groups.
The Senate bill would require lobbyists to file more public reports detailing their business activities and reveal more information about their fundraising efforts for politicians. It also would require lawmakers leaving office to wait two years before accepting jobs lobbying their former colleagues, a one-year increase from the current moratorium.
Several senators acknowledged Wednesday that the issue of paid meals was largely symbolic. But Obama argued that the ban the Senate adopted could curb the clout wielded by some lobbyists.
"It's not just the meal that's the problem ... it's access that meal gets you," he said.
"You don't see many members eating $50 meals with constituents who are in town to talk about the issues on their mind or with policy experts who are discussing the latest economic theories. Most of these meals are with high-priced lobbyists who are advocating on behalf of a specific interest."
Others warned the amendment could have unintended consequences, such as encouraging lobbyists to host lavish receptions in the place of taking lawmakers out to eat.
"I do think we're going to regret this, and we're going to look small. I think we demean ourselves by inferring that we could be had for the price of a lunch or a dinner, [which is] just not the case," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who as chairman of the chamber's Rules Committee helped write the ethics bill.
"Having said that, it's clear that in a bipartisan way, the Senate wants to do this. So, so be it. I'll be eating with my wife, and so will a lot more senators after we pass this one."
Senate Republican leaders moved Wednesday to close debate on the ethics bill; a final vote on the measure is expected next week.