Editorial: Gift limits are good policy
As Black Friday approaches, everyone is thinking about gifts. Kids. Parents. Department store Santas.
And state representatives.
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee unanimously approved an annual limit on what a public official, employee or candidate can receive.
The value of limiting gifts should be obvious for anyone to see.
While Washington is embroiled in an examination of the ethics of giving and taking right now, it’s worthwhile to take a closer, smaller look at the idea of transactional relationships closer to home.
The words “quid pro quo,” for example, are getting a lot of airplay but what do they mean? The simplest meaning is “this for that.” The concept is the root of contract law. It isn’t a distant, shady idea. It’s the basis of everything from doing a job to buying a cup of coffee.
Where it can get sticky is when the quid is offered to an official to receive a public quo. Pennsylvania has seen that happen too often.
One of the most vivid examples was the conviction of state Treasurer Budd Dwyer in 1987 for conspiring to accept $300,000 from a California firm in return for awarding a state contract. Dwyer subsequently killed himself at a news conference.
It is by no means the only instance. Whether overt or implied, the idea of buying and selling influence is far too easy a proposition, and gifts can provide cover.
It is to be commended that the committee gave uniform and bipartisan approval to the proposed limits.
It is unfortunate that a provision to make an exception for lobbyists to give birthday or wedding gifts was allowed.
There are other exceptions. Up to $50 in gifts per calendar year from one person. Up to $500 in “hospitality” from a source in a year. Gifts from family members or between public officials “on a voluntary basis.” Prizes and awards. Training in the government interest. Educational missions.
“There ought to be some middle ground in order for us to conduct business, as long as things are open and transparent and that taxpayers know what we’re accepting and from who,” said Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming.
Openness is good. Transparency is good. But why does “conducting business” have to include elected officials or public employees accepting any gifts? Would the roads not get plowed unless someone gets a $30 gratuity? Would schools not be built without a $500 hotel stay?
Gifts — voluntary or otherwise — should not be the fuel that keeps the government generator running.