• U.S.


3 minute read
Margaret Carlson

WHAT IS A FRIEND? POETS AND PHILOSOPHERS HAVE PONDERED the question for centuries. Harry S Truman advised anyone looking for such a thing in Washington to buy a dog instead. But now the musing has taken on great urgency because friendship, it turns out, is one of the few exceptions to the draconian new congressional ethics rules that took effect on Jan. 1. These rules replace older, looser ones about accepting gifts, meals and junkets. The new standard in the House is “Zero Tolerance”–no freebies other than trifling gewgaws and home-state souvenirs from anyone at all, except family or friends. The Senate still allows gifts up to $50 in value. No one has enough family members to supply all the goodies so many in Washington have become accustomed to–fine wines and aged steaks, golf outings to a warm climate, or a luxury box at the World Series. So the specific exemption for those provided on the “basis of personal friendship” is attracting a lot of attention. At first it looks as if the new rules could break the back of the political culture. The owner of Le Mistral restaurant, just blocks from the Capitol, says the ban is “catastrophic.” The venerable Occidental Grill is considering a $19.95 “Hill menu,” to beat the Senate limit.

But you can still eat well, snag the occasional case of liquor or junket to Palm Springs, California, if your friendships are sufficiently close. This being Washington, there is a sheaf of guidelines defining this ineffable state, and the very careful can get an advisory opinion certifying the degree of closeness in case one is reported for impermissible fraternization with a known lobbyist. The House guidelines mix lawyerly analysis with primer language the most ethically challenged can understand, employing kindergarten names such as Moe Member, Larry Lobbyist and Stella Staffer to make their points. (Example: Carla Congresswoman lunches periodically with Edna Executive. Edna always picks up the tab. Aside from these lunches, the two never socialize. Although they have known each other for years, theirs is not a “personal friendship.”) Of course, this being Washington, Edna may become godmother to Carla’s first born, but never mind. The guidelines do permit “nominal gifts” from nonfriends, but in the absence of a dollar amount, explains Representative Jim McDermott, the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee, he can only respond item by item: Bic pen, yes; Montblanc, no. Whitman’s Sampler, yes; Godiva chocolates, no. Receptions are O.K., if the spread goes light on the four major food groups. Hors d’oeuvres are of nominal value, but roast beef will get you in trouble with the Meal Police.

The Senate forgoes the folksy approach. Ethics counsel Victor Baird answers each inquiry–what about Stella Staffer’s social life?–with a citation: “That comes under Rule 35, Section C, and Interpretive Ruling No. 439,” advises Baird. This allows nondisclosure “of gifts of an intimate nature,” or where disclosure “would be embarrassing.” Like that lingerie Moe Member sent her.

Lawyers are working overtime looking for loopholes to drive a golf cart through. Just last week there were more members at the Super Bowl than Diana Ross had costume changes at halftime. Calling a trip a campaign event puts a person under a whole other set of rules. There will always be a way.

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