Q: I am a staffer for a member of the House, and one of my longtime responsibilities has been arranging his travel. This can be time-consuming as there are lots of hoops to jump through and forms to fill out in order to get the Ethics Committee’s approval for travel expenses to be paid by an outside source. Now I see that the Ethics Committee has issued new travel regulations. I am not an attorney, and the new rules are very lengthy, so I have not read them. But I gather that for travel expenses to be paid by an outside source, we now must obtain Ethics Committee approval 30 days in advance of the travel. I’m not sure that will always be possible for our member, particularly when he is invited on a trip that is less than 30 days away. Is this really a new requirement?
A. As you know, House rules require members to obtain the approval of the Ethics Committee before an outside source may pay a member’s expenses for officially related travel. This is an offshoot of the House gift rule, which generally prohibits members from accepting anything of value — including travel expenses — unless an exception applies. As the House Ethics Manual states: “travel may be among the most attractive and expensive gifts, and thus before accepting travel, a Member ... should exercise special care to ensure compliance ...”
One of the exceptions to the gift ban allows members to accept travel expenses from an outside source to participate in trips connected to official House duties. Trips that typically qualify for this exception include travel for speaking engagements or fact-finding trips. For many years, it was up to each member to assess whether a particular trip qualified as being connected to official duties and therefore could be paid for by an outside source.
In 2007, however, after a rash of headline-grabbing lavish trips taken by members, the House adopted new rules delegating that assessment to the Ethics Committee and requiring members to obtain written approval from the committee before accepting travel expenses from an outside source for officially related trips. The rules also directed the Ethics Committee to issue regulations outlining the circumstances under which members could accept travel expenses and establishing a process for members to obtain committee approval.
Those regulations were in effect until December of last year when, after a lengthy review, the committee issued new travel regulations, making several substantive changes. Among the most significant changes is an increase in the amount of time in advance of travel that members must seek committee approval for their trips. Under the old rules, members were required to request the committee’s approval 14 days in advance of a trip. The new rules require them to do so 30 days in advance. As you point out, this could make life more difficult for you, as well as for others who oversee travel for members of the House.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.