On September 14, 2007, the President signed into law S.1 – The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 – a government reform bill that addresses, among other things, gift and travel rules for Members of Congress and their staff. This update provides an overview of the House and Senate rules with respect to gifts and travel under the new provisions.
Summary of Key Provisions
- The new rules prohibit Members of Congress and employees from accepting gifts, including meals, from a registered lobbyist, from an agent of a foreign principal, or from any entity that employs or retains a lobbyist or foreign agent.1,2 This strict prohibition applies even if the lobbyist, or any other representative of an entity employing lobbyists, uses personal funds to pay for the gift or meal. Certain exceptions continue to apply, including:
- Anything for which the Member or Congressional employee pays the market value.
- Political contributions.
- Gifts from a relative.
- Gifts made on the basis of personal friendship.
- Informational materials.
- Anything paid for by the federal government or a state or local government (includes public universities).
- Items of nominal value – t-shirts, baseball caps, and greeting cards.
- Promotional items from home state or district of minimal value.
- Food or refreshments of a nominal value offered other than as part of a meal.
- Free attendance at a qualifying “widely attended event,” regardless of the sponsor (meal may be accepted).
- Free attendance at a qualifying “charity event” (meal may be accepted).
- Preexisting gift limits still apply to entities NOT employing lobbyists and individuals who are neither lobbyists nor affiliated with an entity that lobbies.
- $49.99 per gift, $99.99 per year per Member/staffer maximum.
- Gifts of less than $10 do not count toward $99.99 per year maximum.
- A member or staff may not “buy-down” a gift.
- Ticket Valuation
- Tickets to a sporting or entertainment event are valued at the face value of the ticket, or in the case of a ticket without a face value, at the highest cost of a ticket with a face value for the event.
- The value of tickets for skyboxes or other private luxury boxes with no face value or an artificially low face value is deemed to be the price of the highest individually priced ticket for the event.
- This gift ban became effective upon enactment for Senators and Senate staff, but has been in effect for Members of the House and their staff as a result of House rule changes that took effect on January 5, 2007.
- Except as noted below, the rules prohibit Members and staff from accepting travel reimbursements from a lobbyist, or from an entity that employs or retains lobbyists. The rules also generally prohibit lobbyist accompaniment on a trip or involvement in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging most trips. A few exceptions apply:
- Entities that employ lobbyists may reimburse Member and employee travel to oneday events (e.g., conventions, meetings, speeches) that are within the scope of the official responsibilities of the Member or employee. In general, travel to a one-day event includes an overnight stay. Lobbyists may play only a de minimis role in the planning, organization, request, or arrangement of the one-day trip, but may NOT accompany the Member or employee on such trips. It is not yet known how broadly this restriction will be applied – that is, whether it would apply only to the travel itself, or to both the travel and the actual event.
House – Travel Provided by Colleges and Universities:
- For Members of the House of Representatives and their staff, colleges and universities, even those that retain lobbyists, may provide travel if the trip is related to the recipient’s official responsibilities.
Senate – Travel Provided by 501(c)(3) Organizations:
- For Senators and Senate staff, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, even those that retain lobbyists, may provide travel if the trip is related to the recipient’s official responsibilities. Lobbyists may only play a de minimis role in the requesting, planning, arranging, or organizing the event, and may not accompany the Senator or staff “at any point throughout the trip.”
- These travel limitations became effective for Members of the House and their staff on March 1, 2007. The new travel rules for Senators and their staff became effective upon enactment of this legislation on September 14, 2007.
- Quarterly filing – Lobbying reports will, beginning in 2008, be due quarterly, as opposed to the current semi-annual schedule, and must be filed electronically.
- Thresholds – The dollar thresholds for requiring lobbying registration have been cut in half. For lobbying firms, registration is required when lobbying income from a client exceeds $2,500. For entities employing at least one lobbyist (one who has made at least two lobbying contacts and spends at least 20 percent of his/her time for the employer engaged in lobbying) to lobby on the entity’s own behalf, registration is required when total expenses in connection with lobbying activities exceed $10,000. Coalitions must also report the names of any entities that financially contribute more than $10,000 to support lobbying activity (this threshold was previously $20,000).
- Lobbyists must also report prior government service for the preceding 20 years.
- The changes to LDA reporting requirements are effective for reporting periods beginning January 1, 2008.
Compliance Certification with Gift/Travel Ban
- Prior to the enactment of this legislation, congressional gift and travel rules have only regulated the conduct of Congressional Members, offices, and employees. This new legislation, however, makes lobbyists, and organizations employing lobbyists independently liable for violations of the congressional gift and travel rules. In addition, lobbying disclosure reports must now include a sworn certification of compliance with the gift and travel rules.
- The penalties for violation of the federal lobbying law, including the provision of knowing violation of the gift rules, now include criminal penalties for the first time – significant fines and up to five years in prison. Civil penalties have also been increased, including a fine of up to $200,000.
Disclosure of Contributions
- Lobbyists and their employers must also report to the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, on a semi-annual basis, all political contributions equal to or exceeding $200 (in the aggregate) made to Member controlled or affiliated committees, including party committees, and Presidential library foundations and inaugural committees.
Political Contributions – “Bundling”
- With respect to political campaign committees, leadership PACs, and political party committees, S. 1 requires such entities, on a semiannual basis, to report to the FEC political contributions “bundled” by persons “reasonably known” to be lobbyists, organizations that retain them, or political committees that lobbyists or their employers control.
- Two or more contributions will be considered “bundled” if the lobbyist collects and forwards them to the committee, or if they are received by the committee which, by some means of “recognizing” that the money has been raised by the lobbyist, gives the lobbyist “credit” for the fundraising effort.
- The threshold for a committee’s reporting of these contributions is an aggregate amount raised of $15,000.01, excluding contributions by the lobbyist or the lobbyist’s spouse, in any semiannual reporting period. The aggregate amount of the contributions received must be included on the report, along with the name and address of the “bundler,” and if applicable, the name of their employer.
Political Party Conventions
Senators may not participate in national party convention events held in their honor – unless they are participating as a Presidential or Vice Presidential nominee – when such events are paid “directly” by a lobbyist or lobbying firm. The House rule on this issue is written differently and does not make it entirely clear whether this prohibition applies to House members if honored in their capacity as House candidates or only, as with the Senate, as candidates for President or Vice President.