A Question of Ethics

2007 in Review: A Year of Readers' Questions, Frustrations

December 17, 2007

by C. Simon Davidson

Earlier this year, I received an e-mail from the chief of staff for a Member of the House regarding a birthday party invitation the staffer’s son had received. In years past, one might have found it odd that a chief of staff would e-mail a Washington, D.C., attorney regarding a second-grader’s birthday party. In 2007, however, the Year of Congressional Ethics, the inquiry wasn’t odd at all.

The year brought the most dramatic changes to ethics and lobbying law in more than a decade. In January, the House enacted new ethics rules, primarily targeting receipt of gifts and travel from lobbyists. In September, the Senate followed suit. Also in September, the president signed new legislation requiring, for the first time, that lobbyists obey the Congressional gift rules, and imposing criminal penalties upon lobbyists who engage in corrupt violations of the rules. As this column has described, under some circumstances that legislation might even provide an aggressive prosecutor an avenue to subject Members and staffers to criminal penalties for corrupt violations of the gift rules, particularly when the violations involve lobbyists.

Yet, as I look back at the questions I have received from readers this year, perhaps what is most striking is not the sea change in liability, but rather the extent to which Congressional ethics rules touch the everyday lives of Members, staffers and lobbyists. While some of the readers’ questions concerned weighty issues of ethics and the law, the majority sought guidance on how to get through their day without running afoul of the rules.

In the case of the child’s birthday party, the staffer’s e-mail stated that the party would be at Ultrazone, a “laser tag place,” and that there would be pizza, cake and ice cream. The cost for the laser tag was about $30 a child. The staffer asked whether the fact that the father of the birthday boy was a lobbyist prohibited the staffer’s son from attending. I was happy to reply that, so long as the staffer had no reason to believe his son was invited to the party because of the staffer’s official position, his son could attend the party and enjoy all the entertainment and refreshments that the other children would enjoy.

In May, a reader wrote in response to a column regarding the House rules that forbid senior staffers from accepting honoraria — or payments for appearances, speeches and articles. The reader, a Senate staffer, asked whether the Senate has similar restrictions. It does.

In October, a staffer asked whether the $250 limit on gifts that Members and staffers may accept under the personal friendship exception also prohibits a staffer from receiving a gift worth more than $250 from a spouse. Alas, the ethics rules do not provide stingy husbands with an excuse to leave their wives’ Christmas stockings only half full. This is because, in addition to a personal friendship exception to the general gift prohibition, there also is an exception that allows gifts from relatives. Unlike the personal friendship exception, the relatives exception has no limit.

Also in October, a government affairs executive for a charity wrote with a question regarding an arrangement relating to a black-tie fundraiser his charity hosts. Under the arrangement, the executive would solicit corporate sponsors to purchase tables for the fundraiser, and then ask the sponsors for permission to use their tables for House staffers. I replied that, presuming the sponsors had no role in directing which staffers to invite, there was nothing inherent in his arrangement that would violate the House ethics rules.

In November, a Congressional staffer wrote with a suggestion regarding how to split up tabs when dining with groups that include lobbyists. To avoid violations of the prohibition on gifts for lobbyists, the staffer suggested that a group request two checks: one for lobbyists and one for everyone else. I replied that it was a good suggestion, except that lobbyists and staffers might still need to be careful about sharing any items with lobbyists, particularly expensive items paid for by the lobbyists (e.g., rare bottles of wine).

In addition to asking questions, some readers expressed frustration about how difficult it can be to comply with the rules. For example, the staffer who asked about the birthday party explained why he was happy to allow his story to be included in a column as follows: “Anything to highlight how hard it is for staff to ... follow the rules is fine with me.”

Another reader, who had a question about holiday parties hosted by lobbyists, stated that he had raised his question with “twenty or so people who are normally pretty up to speed on this stuff and no one knows.” He called this state of affairs “funny or perhaps sad depending on how you look at it.”

Another staffer’s e-mail reflected the frustration some feel about the intrusiveness of the rules. She called the restrictions on gifts from personal friends an infringement upon her personal freedom and an invasion of privacy. She then wrote: “Sorry for ranting — I know it’s not you that created this legislation!”

These e-mails illustrate how intrusive some of the rules are, how seriously the readers take compliance and how frustrating a process compliance can be. An e-mail from a Congressional Research Service staffer may have summed up best the impact of the Year of Congressional Ethics. As she put it: “It’s a tough world out there.” Take care in 2008.


© Copyright 2007, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission. Widely regarded as the leading publication for Congressional news and information, Roll Call has been the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. For more information, visit www.rollcall.com.

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