In the seven-page advisory memo issued by the House ethics committee last week on the chamber’s new gift rules, Members and aides looking for clarity should focus on a line on page 2: “When in doubt, a gift should not be accepted.”
The new gift rules enacted by Democrats are part of their campaign pledge to change the way Congress and K Street do business, and in many respects the rules already have had an impact on lobbyists’ interaction with Capitol Hill — although not always in the ways they were intended.
For example, the American Library Association will kick off its annual convention this Friday and 26,000 of the nation’s librarians will be in Washington, D.C., in part to lobby for the group’s mission “to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information.”
Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington office, said the new rules have prompted some unwelcome changes in the library world. “Normally we would be encouraging our librarians to go to the Hill to bring trinkets, like bookmarks and gifts from publishers, that kind of thing, but we are not encouraging that now,” she said.
The group — which did receive the go-ahead to host a “Library Day” in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building next week to promote “innovative library services” — also had to scale back an effort to get lawmakers to participate in the ALA’s popular READ poster initiative that encourages people to read, and includes a number of celebrity supporters such as actor Anthony Hopkins and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Sheketoff said the group was planning to take photographs of Members with their favorite books as part of the poster campaign so that the ALA could in turn send copies of the posters to libraries in their Congressional districts, but that effort had to be scaled back because the posters are valued at $14 — four dollars above the $10 cutoff point now defined by the gift rules. So the ALA is now using smaller posters, valued at $7.99, to avoid an ethics violation.
The ALA’s circumstance is in line with a series of detailed examples outlined by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last week in an effort to help clarify the new gift rules for Members and staff, but there are few hard and fast rules.
For instance, a Member could attend a trade association’s holiday party and eat the hors d’oeuvres offered, but could not attend an informational briefing on a policy matter by the same association and eat the boxed lunch provided by the group if they employ a lobbyist.
In another example, a Member can accept a $15 baseball hat from a company that employs lobbyists, but the Member could not accept a $12 coffee mug from the same company. “The Member may not accept the mug,” the panel wrote. “Under Committee precedent, Members and staff should not rely on the ‘items of nominal value’ provision in accepting any item having a value of $10 or more (except for a greeting card, baseball cap, or T-shirt).”
The memo also offers further explanation of the rules, such as one allowing Members and staff to still go to events with lobbyists if they are “widely attended” gatherings. The panel defines such an event as one where at least 25 people are expected to attend, there are a “range of persons” interested in the matter, the invite list is not limited to “Members, officers, or employees of the Congress” and the event is reasonably related to a Member or staffer’s official duties.
Rep. Bill Cassidy has his blood drawn by Alesha Barbour during a free hepatitis screening in the Rayburn House Office Building hosted by the Congressional Viral Hepatitis Caucus to recognize "National Viral Hepatitis Testing Day."
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