It isn't something the House Ethics Committee chairman would be expected to say.

But Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, says the House's ban on most gifts to members - which he is in charge of enforcing - has proven to be downright silly, makes doing business unnecessarily difficult and should be loosened up.In fact, he says - with some venom in his voice and a twitch in his eye - "It's one of the worst things we've ever done around here, frankly."

Ironically, the ban was written by former Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah. She said it was needed to restore confidence in Congress. It was a highlight of her service, cut short when her now ex-husband was shown to be a fake millionaire who illegally financed her campaigns by theft and fraud.

Hansen said his committee is constantly deluged with questions about acceptance of minor freebies because the ban allows them in some situations but not others - and it threatens scandal for the price of a free pizza.

So his committee just sent all House members a 10-page memo with answers to the top 20 ethics questions it is asked, and it especially focused on uncertainties about the gift ban.

The first question, for example, is whether a member can accept tickets to a college basketball game. The simple question doesn't have a simple answer.

The answer is yes if tickets come from a state-owned university (like, say, the University of Utah) because state and local governments are exempt from the ban. A private college (like Brigham Young University) can't make a similar offer.

If individuals are buying the tickets, a House member may accept them only if they come on the basis of a personal friendship (and not lobbying). Each member has to decide that for himself.

Another often-asked question is whether staffs are allowed to accept free pizza sent by some outside organizations during late-night sessions.

The answer is no. But the memo notes that staffers may eat refreshments of nominal value (maybe even slices of pizza) at receptions and briefings hosted by such outside organizations - but no dinners.

Another top question is about whether members may play golf for free with acquaintances who belong to a country club, where their membership allows them to bring guests for free.

The answer is no, and the member must pay the market value. "The actual cost to the offeror is irrelevant," the memo says.

Yet another question is whether a member or staffer can accept use of a beach condominium for a few days.

It depends. The answer is yes if the person (and not a business) owns the condo, and if gifts of similar magnitude have been exchanged in the past, and if the offer is made on the basis of friendship and not because of the member's position.

The memo also reminds members "that no gift exceeding $250 in value may be accepted on the basis of personal friendship without the prior written approval of this committee" - and stays at condos are often worth more than that.

Another asks about the fruit baskets and chocolates often dropped off during the holidays. If they are worth more than "nominal value" and are not a home-state product, they must be returned. Members cannot use their free-mail franking privilege to return them either - they must buy stamps themselves.

Hansen complains it's reached the point that a wise member would take a cheese sandwich in a brown paper bag to eat at any luncheon where he is invited to speak to avoid questions about whether he accepted an improper free meal.

Hansen says that makes it unnecessarily difficult for members to do their jobs. He also says an easy way to fix it would be to allow members to accept gifts worth up to $50 - which would solve questions about minor meals, pizza and free baseball caps.

He notes the Senate already does that. But he doesn't expect any such change in the House soon. That's because voting to loosen a gift ban in an election year would spark as much political dynamite as voting for a big pay raise - even if it makes sense.

So there is no free lunch in Congress - except for lobbyists who dine with Hansen. He says he still eats with them to save time on his tight schedule - but he always picks up the tab now.