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Silly Rule

Talk about ridiculous: As an unintended consequence of ethics reform, some journalists — not all — are barred from taking Members of Congress and their staffers to lunch, and ethics lawyers are trying to figure out who can and who can’t.

Gifts and sit-down meals from lobbyists are banned under the new rules, of course, but this also applies to any employee of a company that employs a lobbyist. And this is how reporters get caught up in the net, even though their work is miles away from whatever lobbying interest their employers might have.

Of course, the rule does not apply to all journalists covering the Hill — just those whose parent companies employ lobbyists. This includes The Washington Post Co., but not The New York Times. It does cover the broadcast networks, MSNBC and Fox News, but maybe not CNN, which is owned by Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which does not employ lobbyists, and which is separately incorporated from its owner, Time Warner Inc., which does. Go figure.

The situation is not going to change journalism as we know it, for sure, but it does provide a marginal advantage for reporters not covered by the ban. The Associated Press, for instance, is free to invite Hill sources to Washington Nationals baseball games — AP’s seats are in the sub-$50 seats — because the wire service employs no lobbyists. Those covered by the ban can’t.

For the record, Roll Call and its parent company, The Economist Group, do not employ lobbyists. Nor do the other main Capitol Hill-based publications: Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, The Hill and Politico.

In cases where ownership structure of media companies is complicated, so is the situation involving lunches, cups of coffee and burgers and beer. Some ethics experts say that no matter how many layers separate a beat journalist from his or her lobbyist- employing corporate HQ, playing it safe means not buying.

Then there’s the issue of a reporter paying out of his or her own pocket. House ethics rules allow it — as long as the reporter doesn’t get reimbursed. Senate rules forbid it even then — unless the reporter says that the expense is based on personal friendship.

The Senate Ethics Committee has ruled, however, that a Senator appearing on Meet the Press can accept a cup of coffee and a muffin in the green room before the show without violating the rules. That’s nice.

Greg Keeley, president of the Senate Press Secretaries Association and spokesman for Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), had it right when he told Roll Call that the rules are “too complicated,” adding, “what influence a journalist is going to have on my boss’s legislative agenda, it’s a bit of a long bow to draw.”

We have a solution to offer: House and Senate amendments exempting accredited journalists from the ethics rule.

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