Q: I am a registered lobbyist and a longtime friend of a Senate
staffer. We grew up on the same street and attended the same schools all the way
from the first day of kindergarten through law school. I served as the best man
in his wedding, and he was the best man in mine. Over the years, our wives have
become close as well, so close that they speak nearly every day. My friend’s
40th birthday is coming up, and I would like to do something special for him.
I’m thinking of getting him a $1,000 gift certificate to his favorite
restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington. May I do so? If not, may we simply
address the gift from my wife, who is not a lobbyist?
A: Wow, we should all have friends like you. Unfortunately, in this
case, your friend may not be able to enjoy the full benefit of your generosity.
Under the recently enacted Honest Leadership and Open Government Act,
lobbyists such as yourself face penalties for making a gift to a Senate staffer
that violates the Senate gift rule. As I am sure you know, the gift rule
prohibits gifts of any kind to Senators and their staffers, unless an exception
applies. Therefore, the question for you is whether there is an exception that
allows the gift you have in mind.
Given your relationship with the staffer, the personal friendship exception
would appear to be your best bet. This exception covers anything given on the
basis of a personal friendship, unless the gift was provided because of the
recipient’s official position. The rule sets forth three relevant factors, and
you have a good shot at meeting all three. But, as you may have guessed, there’s
The first factor is the history of the relationship between you and the
staffer, including whether you have previously exchanged gifts. Given your close
friendship, I’m going to bet that this is not the first time you’ve exchanged
gifts. If that’s right, so far so good.
The second relevant factor is whether you will pay personally for the gift,
or whether you instead will seek a business reimbursement or tax deduction. It
doesn’t sound like a reimbursement or deduction is what you have in mind here.
So far, you are two for two.
The third factor is whether, at the same time you give the staffer his gift,
you also plan to give similar gifts to other Congressional employees. Since this
gift is for a special occasion, I imagine it’s not your plan to distribute
$1,000 gift certificates to The Inn at Little Washington throughout Congress.
You appear, then, to meet all three exceptions. So what’s the catch?
For gifts given under the personal friendship exception, there is a $250
across-the-board limit. The only way around this limit is for the staffer to
obtain written approval from the Ethics Committee. Unless the staffer obtains
such approval, your gift is four times more generous than the rule allows.
(Incidentally, if you’ve already purchased the gift certificate, you should know
that the Congressional rules do not forbid gifts to Roll Call columnists —
although our editors probably wouldn’t be too happy about one of us getting a
gift from a lobbyist.)
Unfortunately, the idea that the gift be given by your wife rather than
yourself, while ingenious, won’t get you around the Senate’s rule. The rule is a
general prohibition upon all gifts, regardless of the source. Even if your
wife’s gift qualified under the personal friendship exception, the $250 limit
would still apply.
The restrictions on the gift to your friend would be no different if your
friend were in the House, where the rules contain a similar $250 limit on gifts
made on the basis of personal friendship. The consistency of the House and
Senate rules on this point means that, for gifts given under the personal
friendship exception, there is a $250 limit on all gifts to Congressional
With the holiday season approaching, your question is a useful reminder that
there are now stiff penalties for lobbyists’ violations of the Congressional
gift rules, even where the recipient is a personal friend. Lobbyists face up to
$200,000 fines for knowingly violating the gift rules — and up to five years in
jail for “corrupt” violations.
This raises one more issue: how to determine the value of a gift. In the case
of your gift, a certificate with a specific denomination, it’s easy. But what
about valuing other gifts? Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that,
under both the Senate and House rules, the fair market value governs, not the
amount that the donor paid for a gift. I predict $250 gift certificates will be
hot items this year.
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