Clampdown on Senators' gifts: Public pressure imposes US ethics code

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WASHINGTON - The agenda for change promised by President Clinton may be slipping somewhat, but public pressure for a higher ethics code in Washington is having its effect, writes David Usborne.

Even the US Senate, albeit with reluctance, has voted to require that all lobbyists' favours - gifts, lunches and junkets - in future be disclosed.

Mr Clinton, meanwhile, announced yesterday long- awaited proposals to clamp down on private and special-interest funding for candidates. It remains to be seen whether a suspicious Senate will be able to bring itself to pass those proposals too. The disclosure rules on gifts was a last-minute amendment to a broader bill on bringing this city's 12,000- strong contingent of political lobbyists to greater public account. Central to the bill is a provision requiring that lobbyists report twice a year on all activites and expenditures.

Though most senators disliked the gifts amendment, none dared publicly to oppose it. The rule echoes limitations already imposed on members of the Clinton administration, who are prohibited from accepting more than dollars 20 ( pounds 13) a year in food and drink from any individual or dollars 50 from an organisation.

Senators have long been used to accepting not just lunch but even greater perks from those seeking to sway them. Favourite inducements are free tickets for baseball games and even weekend trips. The new rules mean that any offering worth more than dollars 20 will have to be itemised on the record.

Unveiling his reform plan, Mr Clinton declared he was seeking to 'reform our political process, to restore the faith of our people in their democracy'. He added: 'The voice of the people . . . has been heard over the voices of the special interests in Washington.'

The proposal would ban donations of so-called 'soft money' from individuals, unions and corporations to political parties and cut down the amounts channelled by interest groups to candidates. Lobbyists would be barred from giving funds to candidates they had sought to influence.

Anecdotal evidence that officials are abiding by their new ethics rules was provided by witnesses of a dinner enjoyed this week at a Georgetown restaurant by Janet Reno, the Attorney General, and the singer Barbra Streisand. Strenuous efforts by the entertainer to pay were quashed by Ms Reno, who insisted on paying her own bill.