The cost of influence peddling is about to go down.
Responding to an angry electorate, the House and Senate are cracking down on lobbyists. This week, the House completed action on a tough disclosure bill that requires lobbyists to say who they work for and who much they are paid.
But what really has people talking on Capitol Hill are the new rules adopted by both the House and Senate limiting gift-giving by lobbyists.
Starting Jan. 1, lobbyists won't be able to buy a member of Congress - or even the office intern for that matter - so much as a hot dog. The Senate has approved less stringent rules that will permit members to accept up to $100 in gifts in any calendar year.
"The House version is zero tolerance," said Robert Rusbuldt, a lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents of America. "I can't even buy a stick of gum for a member."
And that suits Mr. Rusbuldt and a good many other financial services industry lobbyists just fine.
"We're for it," said Jim Butera, a lawyer-lobbyist who represents a number of financial institutions. "It saves us a lot of money."
Just as important, Mr. Butera said, it limits his competition. "It hurts the new guys just starting out who need to get to know people."
Lunch has always been a favored way of getting to know people on Capitol Hill, where staffers share cramped offices in an atmosphere of barely controlled mayhem.
A meeting in a congressional aide's office often means competing with the telephones, nearby conversations, and constant interruptions. By contrast, even a noisy restaurant offers a lobbyist an hour of quality time with an aide.
The gift ban "will make normal human intercourse more difficult," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
Still, the ban on gifts, while it might please a cynical electorate, won't hurt Mr. Guenther or any other established lobbyist with a good Rolodex.
"You don't need a lot of friends," said one lobbyist. "You just need a few good ones."
That's because the amendments that benefit select, small groups aren't passed with brute force. Instead they are finessed - offered at the right time, by the right person, with the approval of a committee chairman or someone else in the congressional leadership.
For example, the 1989 amendment creating a new class of bank-owned thrifts was offered by former Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, though no one can say for sure when she did. Somehow it just showed up in the bill midway through committee proceedings.
While powerful friends are important, Mr. Rusbuldt argues that there are also "lots of different ways to get your ideas across," even to legislators who don't know a lobbyist well.
A simple office visit, he said, can be effective. "There's such a thing as the power of ideas."
But gift reform could alter the balance in power in Washington, helping some groups and hurting others. Trade groups such as the independent agents, with broad membership bases, will benefit the most.
With the inside game limited, the outside game becomes more important, and organizations that can turn out campaign workers or muster letter- writing campaigns are at an advantage.
Downtown lawyers - the hired guns who sign on with one client this week and another the next - stand to lose the most. They lack a natural constituency to back up their efforts, and depend more heavily than trade group representatives on the goodwill generated from wining and dining Hill folk.
That doesn't mean they're out of the game. Many have long-standing contacts and the ability to generate new ones, particularly if they have skills as campaign fund-raisers.
And that's the one money connection that the new Republican Congress seems reluctant to break.