The Senate agreed unanimously Friday to impose strict new limits on free meals, expense-paid trips and other gifts to its members and staff, reluctantly sacrificing its free lunch on the altar of political prudence.
Responding to public anger over reports of their lavish entertainment by special interests, senators agreed to limit individual gifts to $50 and put a $100 annual ceiling on multiple gifts of more than $10 each from a single source.
They also banned free vacation trips, including expense-paid travel and lodging for the tennis, golf and ski outings that are conducted both to raise money for charity and to bring lawmakers into contact with lobbyists and corporate officials in plush and cozy settings.
In addition, lobbyists would be banned from giving to senators’ legal defense funds, retreats or designated charities.
At one point, the Senate voted to gut one of the major provisions but, faced with the prospect of angry denunciations by leaders of the rules overhaul effort, it reversed itself and got back on the reform road.
In voting 98 to 0 to enact the new rules, the Senate “took a giant step” in addressing the “lack of credibility out there … that undermines confidence in Congress,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped broker the final deal.
“Maybe it’s not a home run, but I think the Senate hit a triple here today and that’s progress,” said Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., who with Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, had co-sponsored stronger restrictions.
Although he supported amendments to weaken the measure, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., said it was “a good bill … one we can be proud of.” It was “one issue we wanted to get behind us,” he added. “It’s always more difficult when it affects us.”
The new rules, which will take effect in January, apply only to the Senate. House GOP leaders have indicated they probably will not take action on gift rules this year.
The rules represent a significant tightening of existing gift restrictions, under which House and Senate members may accept unlimited gifts of $100 or less, with no limits on meals.
They may accept no more than $250 a year from one source, but only gifts of more than $100 are counted toward that total.