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TOUGHEN RULES ON LOBBYISTS, GIFTS

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Most people unhappily acknowledge that lobbyists wield enormous power in Washington. That power ought to be curbed, or at least brought out into the open where the public can see what is being spent and on whom.

Back in May, the U.S. Senate passed a lobby reform bill, including a vital amendment that requires lobbyists to disclose all gifts, paid travel and other perks given to Congress - on a member-by-member basis.But the House of Representatives is dragging its feet. A disclosure bill is before the House Judiciary Committee, but it requires only that lobbyists report the lump sum of what they spend, without giving details for each member of Congress.

House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., says he disagrees with the presumption that lobbyists' gifts amount to "undue influence." That denial runs counter to common belief. Lobbyists don't spend all that money if it doesn't make a difference,

A member-by-member account is essential if a lobbyist disclosure law is to be effective. Maybe that is why the House leadership is against it. So far, no House member has offered an amendment like the one that toughened the Senate version.

Along with the tighter disclosure laws, Congress ought to adopt restrictions on the gifts that members of Congress can receive. Several senators this week urged that Congress adopt the same rules that cover the executive branch.

Those rules prohibit members of the executive branch, from the president on down, from accepting gifts worth more than $20 except from family members and close friends. Under current law, members of Congress can accept gifts worth $250 from a single source and unlimited gifts valued at less than $100, without even reporting them. That's an invitation to abuse.

By allowing the rules to be more lax for themselves than for the executive branch, Congress is only adding to the suspicion and lack of confidence that so much of the public feels for the legislative branch.

If House members resist tougher lobbyist disclosure laws and the Congress continues to allow itself lenient rules on gifts, the public distrust and suspicion will be well-founded.