Gift Rules for Washington, D.C., Lobbyists

Excerpted from How Washington Actually Works For Dummies

Members of the House and Senate must follow strict policies regarding Washington, D.C., lobbyists. The most visible of these policies concerns gifts from lobbyists: Members of the House and Senate and their staffs are prohibited from receiving gifts from registered lobbyists and their employers (meaning the clients whose interests they are representing). They may receive gifts from other individuals only if the gift is worth less than $50.

Moreover, House and Senate members and their staffs cannot receive gifts totaling more than $100 from one source in one year. Meals, travel, tickets to sporting events, and all physical goods are considered gifts. (Travel is excepted when it is conducted for “fact-finding” trips, meetings, or speeches as related to the duties of members or their staffs.)

Keep in mind that both the House and Senate can change their gift rules at any time, so don’t be surprised if these numbers change in future Congresses.

In one instance, a lobbyist supposedly was dating a staff member in the office of a U.S. senator, and when it became known that he had given her an expensive diamond ring, he was investigated for violating the $50-limit gift rule.

Turns out he had been less than candid about the ring’s value; the diamond was fake, and the ring was worth less than $50, so the lobbyist was off the hook with investigators. How he fared with the girlfriend was another matter.

Restrictions and prohibitions are usually preemptive or reactive: preventing something before it happens or trying to prevent it from recurring in the future. Bans on gifts from lobbyists fall into the latter category. Indeed, it was the revelation of truly extravagant and occasionally criminal behavior by some lobbyists, notably Jack Abramoff, that finally compelled Congress to clean up its own house.

Before he was a convicted felon, Abramoff was a master of the kind of soft corruption that sends advocates of clean government into apoplectic fits. In one case, Abramoff rented a private jet and arranged a five-day golf outing in St. Andrews, Scotland, for a congressman and several associates. According to prosecutors, this single junket cost a tidy $130,000.

Bribing a public official is a federal crime, often carrying a prison sentence. U.S. bribery laws state that no person may give anything, or offer to give anything, of value “in return for . . . being influenced in the performance of any official act.” Under the law, a quid pro quo, including an implied one, must be present for a bribery charge.

A campaign contribution can qualify as a “thing of value,” as can other services such as meals and massages. The punishment for breaking bribery laws is a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $250,000 (or three times the monetary equivalent of the thing of value, if that amount is greater).

A more vague section of U.S. law that concerns gifts to lawmakers is the illegal gratuities statute, which prohibits anyone from offering or giving a public official anything of value “for or because any official act is performed or is to be performed.”

Unlike a bribe, an illegal gratuity doesn’t require a quid pro quo. That is, illegal gratuities can include gifts given as a “thank-you” for an act already taken or an act that may be forthcoming.

For instance, if someone gives a lawmaker a fruit basket to say thanks for a vote on a certain appropriations bill, he could be found in violation of the illegal gratuities law, which has a punishment of up to two years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

While gifts can be given to federal government officials in theory, such gifts can never amount to more than $20 in value ($50 in aggregate in each year) and must not be connected to a specific past, current, or future act.

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