Out of America: Spartan Senate wages war on the free lunch

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - The prospect is enough to have you weeping for the future of the capital of the free world: swathes of pricey restaurants filing for bankruptcy protection, operas at the Kennedy Centre with hardly a patron, empty seats in the VIP box at Redskins football games.

Still, when your public approval rating is in the upper 20s and falling, you have to do something. So, last week, the Senate passed a law against lobbyists' gifts and favours. It was so strict, it shocked the Senate itself.

Campaigns to 'clean up Washington' are as old as the Republic. But rarely are they initiated within the institution at which they are aimed. By any standard, this show of virtue was impressive. No meals, trips, or tickets from anyone but family or close friends; no more invitations to charity golfing or ski weekends at glitzy resorts, where the lobbyists queue to pick up the bill. In short, no gifts; even small ones worth less than dollars 100 ( pounds 67) apiece, which previously Senators could accept without limit.

A reluctant House of Representatives has yet to pronounce, and a final bill will require hard bargaining. But a Senate vote of 95 to 4 sends an unmistakeable message: the age of the free lunch is over. If the Restauranteurs Association of Metropolitan Washington complains that its members will lose dollars 5m a year, then so be it.

Not of course that Capitol Hill is about to turn into Sparta. By conservative estimates, one Senator in two is a millionaire. House members are less well-heeled. But a salary of dollars 133,640 a year is not exactly a ticket for Skid Row. The state pays for small armies of staffers. But, undeniably the halcyon days are gone.

The great House Bank scandal of 1991-92 was the turning point. First for the radio talk-show hosts and then for Ross Perot, it was manna from heaven. The Augean stables had nothing on the United States Congress.

The besieged organisation sought to polish up its image. Overdraft-proof bank accounts disappeared: then, free health care, free gym facilities, free haircuts and free late-night snacks - believe it or not, even congressmen have to put in the odd 80- hour week. Finally, it was decreed that extra-curricular speaking fees, which could sometimes double an income, had to be donated to charity.

To no avail. Nothing could make the public love politicians. No wonder so many are throwing in the towel, retiring to more remunerative lines of business.

For those who soldier on, self- preservation is the order of the hour. A proposal to cut congressional salaries by 15 per cent was rejected, as in April was an amendment to remove free VIP car parks at Washington airports. But only thanks to departing members, beyond the reach of the voters' wrath. Of the 26 Senators up for re-election this autumn, 22 voted for the measure.

The pity is, it's pointless. This generation of congressmen may be corruptible, but they are far less so than their predecessors. A decent meal or two will not purchase their favours.

But this is the age of the politics of symbolic gestures. Hardly had he entered office than President Bill Clinton slapped a dollars 20-a- time, dollars 50-a-year limit on the cost of lunches which his staff may accept from journalists. The practice is 'honoured in the breach', one White House correspondent confesses (understandably so, given that dollars 20 barely buys a decent sandwich and large Diet Coke for two.

I suspect the clampdown on lobbyist favours is to deflect attention from the real scandal of American politics - campaign finance. The rule is that the candidate who has the most money wins. That usually means the incumbent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars may be contributed legally by a single interest group. The National Rifle Association, the health insurers and the tobacco industry are not charities. If they have a supporter in office, they will pay to keep him there.

So why not level the playing field by insisting that congressional campaigns are publicly funded? The pat answer is always the same: Americans would not finance the politicians they so despise. If last week's show of virtue was designed to prove that these assumed venal rascals had repented, and deserved taxpayers' dollars, we could all applaud. Alas not. The intended beneficiaries are the incumbents. It is enough to make you feel sorry for the Washington restaurant owners.