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

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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.

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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.”

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Explainer thanks Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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