Q: Please help settle a question about linking between a Member’s official House website and campaign website. I have always understood this to be against the rules. But I heard that the House recently issued new guidance, and that it is now OK to link between a campaign website and an official website. I help administer a Member’s official website, and it would certainly be nice to be able to link back and forth between the Member’s House website and campaign website. Is it now OK to post a link from a House website to a campaign website?
A. You are correct that there is new guidance from the House Ethics Committee about website linking. Unfortunately, the new guidance does not allow you to post a link from your Member’s official website to a campaign website. What the guidance does permit, with strings attached, is the reverse: linking from a campaign website to an official House website.
Believe it or not, as mundane as these issues may seem, they actually implicate important federal rules and statutes governing the appropriate use of campaign funds and official House resources.
Federal law requires that “appropriations shall be applied only to the objects for which the appropriations were made ...” Accordingly, as a general rule, the House Ethics Committee has said that official House funds must be used for the performance of official business of the House and not for other uses, such as campaign or political purposes.
Members must certify, under penalty of law, that their official funds are being used appropriately. Misuse of official funds can expose Members to severe consequences, including criminal prosecution for fraud. In 1978, a Member was convicted of several federal crimes, including fraud, stemming in part from his use of official House staff for non-official services. The Member spent seven months in prison and was subsequently censured by the House.
The House Administration Committee, which oversees the use of official House funds, has said that one consequence of the ban on using official funds for non-official purposes is that Members’ House websites “may not include personal, political party or campaign information.” Likewise, the House Ethics Committee has said that official House websites may not be linked “to websites created or operated by a campaign or any campaign-related entity, including political parties and campaign committees.” Government funds, the Ethics Committee has said, should not be used to help incumbents be re-elected. This prohibition remains in place.
The prohibition that has changed is the one governing linking in the other direction. Both House rules and the Federal Election Campaign Act restrict the use of campaign funds. In general, Members may not use campaign funds and resources for official House purposes, with some exceptions. The rules forbid official use not only of campaign funds, but also of certain equipment and services acquired with campaign funds. This includes, for example, campaign-funded computers.
Accordingly, the House Ethics Committee had previously said that a Member’s campaign website “may not include a link to a Member’s House website.” Moreover, a Member’s House website could not even be “advertised on his or her campaign website or in materials issued by the campaign.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.