Q:I am a lobbyist with a question about the exceptions to the ban on gifts to Members and staffers. As I understand it, the ban on gifts means that I may not take Members or staffers out to dinner. While wining-and-dining Members and staffers used to be frequent events on K Street, for most of us lobbyists the gift rules have made them a thing of the past. However, a friend of mine who works for a foreign embassy here in D.C. continues to take Members and staffers out for meals to discuss legislation affecting the country he represents. He says that there is an exception to the ban that permits him to do so. Can this be right?
A: It is. Under the rules, you may not treat Members and staffers to dinner. But your friend may. Lets look at why.
As anyone who has been paying any attention knows by now, the House gift rule prohibits Members and staffers from accepting a gift unless an exception applies. The rules certainly consider an invitation to dinner to qualify as a gift. This means that, in the absence of an applicable exception, you may not take Members and staffers out for a meal. But, provided certain conditions are met, your friend may well be permitted to do so. This is because there is an exception to the gift ban for gifts from foreign governments, including embassies of those governments and their employees. Lets put the exception in context.
Section Nine of Article 1 of the Constitution, which sets forth limits on Congress, provides that No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State. In English, this means that Members and staffers may not accept a gift from a foreign government unless Congress consents.
In 1966, Congress provided blanket consent for certain types of gifts from foreign governments by enacting the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act. Prior to the act, gifts from foreign governments to U.S. employees were required to be placed in the custody of the State Department, which would handle the gifts differently depending on whether the recipient was from the executive, legislative or judicial branch of government. This is in large part because potential recipients of such gifts would often need to seek special legislation permitting receipt of the gifts. In some cases, special legislation was passed. In other cases, it was not. In nearly all cases, however, receipt of gifts from foreign governments was a cumbersome process. The act was intended to remedy these problems.