Do Pesky Ethics Rules Ruin Christmas for U.S. Legislators?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 26 2012 11:35 AM

Capitol Christmas Gifts

Do ethics rules ruin Christmas for our legislators?

There are several rules that govern what members of congress can receive as holiday gifts
There are several rules that govern what members of congress can receive as holiday gifts

Photograph by Shironosov/iStockphoto.

Most Americans have finished opening their Christmas presents, but the holiday season has one Explainer reader wondering about his less fortunate representative in the U.S. Congress. Do Ethics Committee limits on gifts prevent federal legislators from participating in Christmas?

Not really. Anyone can give a single gift worth less than $50 to a member of Congress, so feel free to send stocking stuffers to your man or woman in Washington. Gifts from family members are also exempt from ethics rules, at any value, so a member of Congress (or his or her staff) can have an old-fashioned family Christmas without risking censure. There is a potential for trouble, however, when it comes to friends. A legislator’s neighbor, girlfriend, or boyfriend can give a gift of up to $250 without triggering the interest of the House or Senate Ethics Committees. For gifts in excess of that amount, the Ethics Committees decide whether the member of Congress may accept the present. Legislators must disclose how they know the gift-giver, his or her line of work, and whether anyone else might be contributing to the cost of the present. (The Ethics Committees also consider whether the donor plans to deduct the cost of the gift on tax filings—a strong indication that the donor thinks of it as more than a gift of friendship.) The gift-giving rules have a soft spot for true love: Fiancés and fiancées are treated as family, making it possible for a member of Congress to accept an engagement ring.

The rules might complicate the holidays for our representatives in Washington, but they’re easy enough to follow. Since 2007, when the gift-giving rules were updated, no legislator has been punished for accepting a Christmas gift. The Ethics Committees do receive dozens of calls around the holidays requesting an opinion on certain situations. (If, for example, a legislator’s childhood friend is now a lobbyist, it can make Christmas a tricky time.) Potential consequences range from private admonishment to a fine. The committees consider such factors as the willfulness and egregiousness of the violation when crafting a punishment.

Advertisement

The biggest challenge for members of Congress this time of year isn’t physical gifts but receptions. Lobbyists love to throw soirees during the holiday season for the legislators they’re trying to influence. A regulation known derisively among lobbyists as the “toothpick rule” limits how ritzy these affairs can be. Legislators are not allowed to attend formal dinners but may drop in on events in which finger foods or food on a toothpick is served. So lobbyists work hard to create fancy events in which forks and knives are not required. Recently, a liquor lobbying group threw a clever party called “Bacon and Bourbon.”

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.