The congressional ethics committees recently issued updated guidance for House and Senate Members and staff attending events at the presidential nominating conventions. The guidance is also useful to companies and trade associations that are planning convention events and can help them avoid stumbling into legal or reputational trouble.
There are also new rules for how the 2016 conventions are funded. Each of the national party committees – the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee – may accept contributions from individuals and PACs into separate accounts dedicated to paying convention expenses.
House and Senate Gift Rules Apply at the Conventions
There is no special gift rule exception for convention events. All events to which federal legislators and congressional staff are invited must comply with House and Senate gift rules. Convention event planners and sponsors should be particularly mindful of the following events and items that the gift rules expressly allow:
- Food and refreshments of nominal value that are not offered as part of a meal. For evening events, this gift rule exception is commonly used for cocktail receptions.
- Invitations and other gifts offered to all convention delegates or to all delegates from a particular state.
- Free attendance at a "widely attended event" at the invitation of the event sponsor (must invite at least 25 non-congressional attendees and meet other prerequisites).
- Free attendance at a charity event at the invitation of the event's sponsor (includes food, beverages, and entertainment that is part of the event).
- Free attendance at a political fundraising event organized by a PAC.
- Any gift with a value less than $50, provided the donor is not a federal lobbyist, registered foreign agent, or entity that employs or retains lobbyists. Such gifts are subject to a $100 annual limit on gifts from any one source.
- A t-shirt or baseball cap of reasonable value, as well as non-food items that have a total value of $10 or less.
Special Rules for Events Honoring Members
What if you want to host an event that honors a Member of Congress?
A lobbyist, or a registered entity that employs or retains a lobbyist, may not pay for an event during the convention that "honors" a Member of Congress. The House and Senate rules differ over certain details, however, with the House prohibiting invitations that refer to a Member as a "special guest" or speaker, and the Senate allowing an event where a senator is a featured speaker.
A company or trade association that employs or retains a federal lobbyist may, however, give money to a non-lobbying organization to host or sponsor a convention event honoring a Member of Congress. The restriction on paying for an event honoring a Member applies only to events "directly paid for" by a lobbyist or lobbying entity.
It is also permissible for a lobbyist or an entity registered under the lobbying laws to host an event honoring a delegation, congressional committee, or caucus, provided that the event otherwise complies with House or Senate gift rules. There is no numerical minimum or maximum for the size of the delegation or caucus invited to such an event. A federal legislator's name may even be listed as honorary host committee member of the event, as long as that list also includes the name of non-congressional host committee members.
Finally, the prohibition on honoring Members of Congress applies only during the actual dates of the convention, allowing lobbyist employers to host a welcome or farewell event before or after the convention. Such an event must still meet one of the gift rule exceptions.
Other Gift Rules May Apply
Keep in mind that other gift rules may apply to an event if invited guests include federal executive branch officials or state and local officials. For example, Obama administration appointees may accept offers of free attendance at a widely attended gathering sponsored by a lobbyist-employer only if they are speaking at the event. If you plan to host a particular state delegation, it is important to review the gift rules applicable to government officials from that state, as well as localities within the state that may have their own gift rules.
Cash Contributions Are Welcome
A new law permits the national party committees (DNC and RNC) to establish separate "accounts" for convention expenses, which can accept contributions from individuals and PACS up to three times the amount that can be contributed to each party's main account. For individuals and PACs that have not qualified for multicandidate status, the limit on contributions to these convention accounts is $100,200 per account per year. For multicandidate PACs, the annual limit per account is $45,000.
Corporations and trade associations cannot contribute (except through their PACs) to these convention accounts. They also may not pay for travel, hotel, or other expenses for convention delegates or speakers.
Corporations may, however, make unlimited cash or in-kind contributions to so-called host committees, which are nonprofit organizations, formed by each host city, that have no political affiliation. The purpose of a host committee is to promote commerce and project a favorable image of each host city.