Q: I am a Senate staffer with a question about communicating with former staffers. I have several good friends who have left the Hill for jobs in the private sector. We remain good friends, and I continue to see them on a regular basis. I recently heard that a Senate staffer was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for continuing to speak with a friend after the friend left the Hill. Do the rules really require me to stop talking to my friends just because they no longer work on the Hill?
A: First, you may rest assured that no law prohibits you from speaking with friends who no longer work on the Hill. As recently as last month, the Senate Ethics Committee confirmed this in a memorandum providing guidance on restrictions on post-employment communications. While the memorandum reiterates the ban on certain types of communications by former Senators and staff, it states: “Even during the period when departed Senators and staff are banned from official contacts with their former colleagues, purely social contact with former colleagues is generally permitted.”
The trick is distinguishing between “purely social contact” and the types of communications that are prohibited. Unfortunately, there is no bright line rule here that separates one from the other. But the recent Senate ethics memorandum does provide some guideposts.
Federal criminal law prohibits former Senators and senior staffers from contacting their former colleagues in the Senate with the intent to influence official action during a “cooling off period” after they leave the Senate. The period is two years for former Senators and applies to contacts with both the Senate and the House. The period is one year for former senior staffers and applies to contacts with the Senate. In addition, all former Senate employees, whether senior or not, are prohibited from making certain types of “lobbying contacts” within one year after leaving the Senate. A senior staffer is someone who is paid at least a rate equivalent to at least 75 percent of a Member’s annual salary for 60 days or more during the staffer’s most recent year or Senate employment.
During these cooling-off periods, the extent of restrictions depends on the type of position held before leaving the Senate. In general, however, the restrictions prohibit communications intended to influence official action. The recent Senate ethics memorandum emphasizes the breadth of the types of communications that are restricted. It notes that the restrictions extend even to contacts in which a former official does not explicitly advocate or plead on behalf of a client but instead makes a contact on behalf of a client. For example, a contact by an official “merely seeking information ... may be problematic ... when the information is sought on behalf of a client.” This, the memorandum says, is because a request for information by a former official on behalf of an influential constituent might induce official action even in the absence of an express request for official action. Because a request for “routine information not intended to induce some action” would not normally require the involvement of a former Senator or senior staffer, the memorandum says, such a request raises the inference that it is in fact intended to influence the recipient in some way.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.