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No More $49.99 Gifts If Miller’s Bill Passes

Adding momentum to a drive by House Democrats to reform lobbying rules, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) is readying a bill that would bar lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers or their aides.

“The time has come to make clear this isn’t why we came to town,” Miller said in an interview. “So let’s just draw a bright line.”

If passed, the measure would upend a cottage industry of gift-giving and wining and dining by lobbyists, many of whom acknowledge privately that the practice is often the price of doing business.

Currently, Members and aides can accept gifts worth less than $50. Under the Miller proposal, they would be unable to accept gifts of any value. However, Miller expects to keep intact a range of exceptions allowed under current law, such as gifts given by family members and personal friends.

Miller, who as co-chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is one of his party’s chief policy advisers in the chamber, circulated a letter Friday seeking co-sponsors. An aide to Miller said the bill would likely be introduced before the July Fourth recess.

The Miller bill will join a measure introduced separately last month by Democratic Reps. Marty Meehan (Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) that would overhaul lobbying regulations for the first time in a decade.

The Meehan-Emanuel legislation has been stalled, however, after it was referred to three committees already backed up with other work.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), meanwhile, said he will introduce legislation of his own before the break, or sign on to the Miller and Meehan-Emanuel measures.

Shays, who earned his reformist stripes by leading the effort to tighten campaign finance laws, said he agrees with the substance of both bills but objects to what he called the partisan bent of the Meehan-Emanuel bill.

That follows criticism launched by House Republican leadership, who back the partisan claim by citing Emanuel’s role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and add that it’s hypocritical, given alleged ethical missteps by the Clinton White House alumnus. Emanuel has dismissed the criticism, instead steering attention back to the bill.

Shays said while he doesn’t see much interest for reform on either side of the aisle, Democrats so far have commanded the issue.

“I think it’s a good strategy, and we need to respond to it,” he said. “We should have our leadership encourage us to measure up. We’re in charge and we should be leading the charge.”

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), declined to comment on Miller’s measure before reviewing it.

The Meehan-Emanuel bill has support from 73 Democrats, with Miller among them.

Miller talked up the gift ban at a press conference he convened with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last month to unveil the party’s ethics reform plans.

Miller said Monday that the Meehan-Emanuel bill was introduced before the gift ban could be included. He added that he hopes both bills will be considered soon as part of an ethics reform package.

Ever since the House repealed a ban on gifts in 1999, Members have been able to receive gifts if they’re worth less than $50, and with no more than $100 worth of gifts allowed from one source in a year.

But from there, the rules get more complicated. There are 23 exemptions, allowing, for example, family members of lawmakers to receive gifts without them counting toward the annual limit. Lobbyists can give Members gifts if they can prove a personal friendship. And Members can eat meals too expensive in a restaurant if they are served at someone’s home, thanks to a “personal hospitality” loophole, according to the forthcoming third edition of “The Lobbying Manual,” written by independent lobbying experts William Luneburg and Tom Susman and published by the American Bar Association.

An aide to Miller said that the bill would maintain most of the exemptions for lobbyists.

“They are legitimate,” the aide said, adding that eliminating the $50 gift allowance will make life “easier and cleaner” for lobbyists and Members.

The bill will saddle lobbyists with responsibility for abiding by the new rules, subjecting them to a fine of up to $50,000 if they are found to be violating them, the aide said.

Tom Susman, a lobbyist himself as well as an expert on lobbying law, said the exemptions, and real-life complications of interpreting them, make reform a tricky prospect.

“Members of Congress live in the real world, and they have to be able to have some sort of normal life with some predictability,” he said. “They ought not to be tied to unrealistic standards.”

Recent revelations about the lobbying practices of Jack Abramoff, who’s now facing federal and Senate investigations, and some of his colleagues have renewed Congressional interest in reforming lobbying regulations.

Abramoff gave expensive gifts, including golf equipment and trips, to the staff of now-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Time magazine has reported.

The embattled lobbyist also took advantage of the fact that Congress set the value of skybox tickets at sports events at $49, just under the current limit, according to The Washington Post.

“The truth is that Jack Abramoff is just one example of how lobbying operates too often in Washington,” Miller wrote in his letter last week.

On the Senate side, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said earlier this month he was considering introducing legislation similar to the Meehan-Emanuel bill and would include a gift ban in his measure. He did not mention when he might introduce a bill, and his spokesman Monday declined to elaborate.

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