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Elections hasten lobby reform Bills suddenly have some momentum as Congress fears home voter wrath

The perfect storm trumped the free lunch on Capitol Hill last week, as the Senate approved -- unanimously, by voice vote -- a ban on accepting meals from lobbyists. The ban is part of a larger lobbying bill, but it's a measure of the pressure lawmakers feel to reform business as usual in Washington.

The perfect storm is the confluence of a critical election year and a major influence-peddling scandal swirling around lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At stake this November is control of Congress, and a lot of seats now held by lawmakers who are taking heat from constituents dismayed by the now-exposed power of the lobbying industry to win favors and even write legislation.

The meals ban is small potatoes, but here's a measure of how common these dinner-table sales pitches to lawmakers have become: The Washington restaurant industry lobbied hard to defeat the amendment, worried that as much as 30 percent of the city's fine dining trade may be linked to Congress. The ban would replace a current policy that allows lawmakers and their aides to accept meals priced at less than $50.

The larger bill would ban accepting gifts from lobbyists and require disclosure of privately sponsored trips, among other reforms. As the House also begins hearings to look at gift and travel rules, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., want a Senate rule making lawmakers pay charter rates instead of often-token reimbursements for flights on corporate jets. Such travel is legal when reimbursed and reported, and common; a nonpartisan tracking service ranked Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, who travels often as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign, among top fliers with $63,185 in corporate air service from 2001-2005.

Reforms are needed primarily because special-interest lobbying backed by big money wields far too much influence in Congress. The Senate and the House need to finish these debates with passage of stricter rules that curb that influence and restore confidence in the public that its representatives are far less open to favors and special interests than they are to the public interest, good causes and persuasive logic.

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