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Let Them Eat Pizza!

House Republican leaders concealed from the chamber's ethics leaders the now-approved rules changes that allow charities to give lawmakers free vacations and make it easier for lobbyists to send food to congressional offices.

Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who led the House ethics committee in the last Congress, said he learned of the proposals Monday - too late to organize an effort to delete them from a larger package of rules revisions. The package passed Tuesday on a party-line vote.

Hefley, who said he may lead the panel again this year, said Tuesday he decided to try and modify the looser rules later rather than stop them immediately.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., who served as the ranking minority member of the ethics panel, said he was not consulted either. Berman will not be serving this year on the panel because of term limits imposed by House rules.

A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said the changes were cosmetic, but Democrats said they seriously eroded the ethical standards introduced by Republicans when they took control of the House in 1995. The GOP toughened standards of conduct for House members and staff after numerous ethics investigations under Democratic rule for the previous four decades. The Senate has not acted to ease its gift rules.

The House rules package with the ethics changes passed on a party-line vote of 221-203. A Democratic effort to kill the revisions was defeated 225-200.

"We weren't consulted," Hefley said. "We're in a position to know what gets people in trouble."

Hefley said he wants to find a way to have lawmakers help a legitimate charity but added, "You don't want boondoggle deals where you get a nice vacation and someone else pays for it."

Berman said: "I think it's a big mistake. I wish they had given the committee a chance to review the issues before putting them into the rules package."

The ethics committee, formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

The Democrat who led the opposition to the rules changes Tuesday in the first debate of the 108th Congress chided the Republicans for undoing the tough rules they initiated.

"The Republican majority made much of past abuses in this body," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas. "Yet, now that the Republicans believe they have a safe and secure majority for the foreseeable future, they want to undo some of the significant strides that were made."

John Feehery, the spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert, said the changes were clarifications. "The purpose of the charity provision is to allow members to support charities," he said. The perishable food provision, dubbed by the Democrats as the "pizza rule," means that "low-paid staff can have something to eat at dinner. They can eat pizza ethically," Feehery said.

The charity rule allows organizations certified as charities by the Internal Revenue Service to pay for travel and lodging for events sponsored by the charitable group. Currently, a House member must pay for his own transportation and hotel.

The prohibition was adopted to discourage lawmakers from attending charitable events at resorts, amounting to free vacations.

The new food rule applies, for example, when lobbyists want to have dinner delivered to a committee office when lawmakers and their staffs are working late on legislation.

Before the change, the value of the food would have counted against a $49.99 ceiling for a single gift to a member and a $99.99 annual limit for gifts from the same source.

The change allocates the value of the food against the gift limits of all those who eat it. It was unclear how House officials will keep track of everyone who grabs a slice of pizza or a chicken leg from a table full of food.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the ethics committee's formal name, distributed gift-rule guidance to lawmakers last November that said the $49.99 limit "cannot be evaded by ... averaging the expense of gifts given to more than one member or staff person."

Don Simon, acting president of Common Cause, said the perishable food rule would create "an easy avenue around the gift rule. It's really a proposal that's in bad faith. To surface this on the day Congress opens gets the House off on a very bad foot."

Simon said the charity provision "re-creates the abuse of the sham vacation for members in the guise of charitable events."

"There's a long record of abuse, which led to adoption of the rule in the first place," he said.

By Larry Margasak

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