ATLANTA -- Last month, an overwhelming majority of voters approved limiting or banning lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, probably without most of them knowing an outright ban has been in place for a few years in Congress.
Polls show that only about 15 percent of the public considers Congress to be doing a good job. In interviews, voters list lack of integrity as one of their knocks against federal lawmakers. Dozens of well-publicized scandals over the years reinforce the idea that politicians are often corrupt.
Generally, public support for members of the Georgia General Assembly has been markedly higher than regard for Congress. But voters still called for a gift ban as at least one of the ethics reforms they want.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had taken the heat for his colleagues who let him vocalize their private dread.
Ralston’s most frequent warning was that the gift-ban proposal amounted to a gimmick that wouldn’t stop the practice but merely drive it under ground where the public and media couldn’t monitor it. He has also warned that ever-increasing ethics provisions simultaneously expand the opportunities for honest officials to trip over technicalities and gotcha allegations by political opponents.
That hasn’t been the experience in Congress, according to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. As the vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, Isakson is privy to complaints and investigations that the public is barred from seeing.
“I can only tell you this -- I can’t talk about specifics because I’m the ranking member of the committee -- we will, from time to time, receive a letter alleging somebody accepted a ticket, and we’ve never found that to be a problem,” he said.
The federal rules prohibit accepting gifts of any value from registered lobbyists and up to $50 in value from anyone else, even other members of Congress.
“Saxby and I used to give Vidalia onions from Georgia to all of the senators, and they stopped that,” he said, referring to the state’s senior senator, Saxby Chambliss, who is also a Republican.
Speaking of food, the ban applies to meals, too. The only exception is “anything on a toothpick,” according to the rule of thumb. That’s to say that senators and congressmen -- and their staff -- can only eat if there are 10 or more people present and food is incidental, such as at the dozens of cocktail receptions that trade groups and advocacy organizations host nightly on Capitol Hill.
As far as tickets to events, the only ones allowable are from non-profits. So, the University of Georgia could give Bulldog tickets, but Arthur Blank can’t do the same with the Falcons.
“It’s about as air tight as you can make it be,” Isakson said.
Isakson gained a good perspective before his election to Congress after spending 17 years in the Georgia General Assembly -- all under Democratic control -- where no limits on gifts, meals, trips or tickets has ever existed.
State leaders have operated under the principle that embarrassment is sufficient constraint. To do that, they have continued to add new requirements for disclosing the freebies legislators take in the expectation that voters would punish the greedy and the compromised.
Isakson said state laws are nothing compared to Congress.
“If you look at the state disclosure (form), with all due respect, it’s not really a disclosure compared to what we have to disclose,” he added. “We have to disclose everything.”
The senator said the federal rules, as rigid as they are, don’t keep him and his colleagues from meeting with lobbyists and gathering information useful in doing their jobs.
Perhaps the state officials will take heed.
After all, Ralston announced within days of last month’s vote that he had changed his mind and would support legislation in January to outlaw all lobbyists’ gifts.
Clearly, he knows how to read election returns. He may also be trying to trump the leadership of the state Senate who signed pledges to support a $100 limit per gift.
As others have noted, the Senate version would allow $100 for a breakfast and the same amount for lunch, dinner and an afternoon snack and even a nice bottle of whiskey and a round of golf at an exclusive resort.
When Ralston is drafting his legislation, he might want to give a call to the vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee for tips on creating an “air tight” law.
That could be especially useful since another vote last month illustrated the practical consequences of having what the public perceives as weak ethics laws. One of the main reasons the transportation sales tax referendum failed in nine of 12 regions was voter distrust of state and local officials.
The tax defeat showed that voters aren’t merely grumbling but that their distrust has a lasting, tangible impact on the state.