What is the thoughtful lobbyist giving to members of Congress this holiday season?
It could be a two-compact disc set of Barbra Streisand's concert at Madison Square Garden, from the Recording Industry Association of America. Or a pewter serving plate, courtesy of the United Transportation Union. Or an 8-gallon tin of flavored popcorn from Ameritech, the regional telephone company.With Congress under fire for consorting with special interests, gift-giving is down somewhat from its heyday a decade ago. But there still is a steady flow of wine, food and other goodies from lobbyists to members of Congress and their top aides.
One day this week, two package delivery workers cruised the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building, pushing oversized carts piled high with presents from lobbyists. Next door in the Longworth Building, another messenger loaded with gourmet fruit baskets was hopping from office to office to drop them off.
The workers in the Senate Republican cloakroom received a hefty box of select oranges and grapefruits, courtesy of Tobacco Institute lobbyist Ralph Vinovich.
Sen. Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who will be the majority leader next year, got a large gourmet food basket, including fancy cheeses, crackers and candy, sent by the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
And RJR Nabisco shipped in hundreds of large wooden casks laden with cookies, crackers and other munchies made by the company.
Members of Congress and aides are allowed to accept gifts valued at up to $250. For anything worth more than that, a specific waiver must be obtained from the ethics committee, and it must be reported in annual financial disclosures.
But it may be the last year for the traditional Christmas largesse on Capitol Hill. Under pressure to reform itself, Congress is poised to enact lobbying and gift legislation this year that could ban most gift-giving by lobbyists.
Dole has promised early action on the issue, and the bill's Democratic supporters say they plan to reintroduce the legislation that died in the last session of Congress because of Republican roadblocks.
In the meantime, the practice continues. Among the bounty:
- Bottles of chardonnay wine from the Securities Industry Association and another chardonnay from the Duberstein Group, a lobbying firm.
- Four-pound boxes of candy from long-distance company MCI; Belgian chocolates from General Instrument Corp.; almonds from Blue Diamond Growers; cookies from BellSouth; and tote bags stuffed with food from the National Food Processors Association.
- Gift boxes of sample products, including toilet paper, from Kimberly-Clark; boxed product assortments, including pain relievers, from pharmaceutical maker Bristol-Myers Squibb; and T-shirts, salad dressings and other food items from Philip Morris.
- Toy earthmovers from Caterpillar Inc., Christmas wreaths from Weyerhauser Corp. and holiday wrapping paper from Champion International Corp.
- Gourmet fruit selections from Trinity Marine Group of Gulfport, Miss., and more fruit from drug maker Merck & Co.
The Teamsters union, which in the past has given wool stadium blankets as gifts, is giving nothing in this year of impending Republican dominance. "We sent a mailing out to our members that says, `Watch what they do, not what they say,' " said Matt Witt, a union spokesman. "That's basically our Christmas message to these guys."
A few congressional offices, sensitive to the public perception of special-interest influence, have adopted their own policies banning acceptance of the gifts. Those offices now face the trouble and expense of returning them or finding suitable charities to donate them to.
One lobbyist for the U.S. Postal Service dropped off a complimentary tote bag this week for a Senate committee aide with this note: "We hope you can accept this bag. It's really, really cheap."