As you know, there is a significant amount of information that must be provided to the committee when requesting approval for a trip. This information allows the committee to make an informed assessment of whether it is appropriate for an outside source to pay for expenses related to the trip. Gathering this information can be time-consuming and should be begun well in advance of the deadline.
This is because the new regulations state that the Ethics Committee will not grant requests after the deadline. There are only two exceptions. One applies to a media outlet offering travel in order for the member to make a media appearance. The other is when the committee deems that “exceptional circumstances” exist. If the regulations themselves are any indication, by “exceptional circumstances” the committee appears to mean circumstances that are truly, well, exceptional.
Notably, the regulations state that “exceptional circumstances do not include the fact that the sponsor failed to extend the invitation more than thirty days before the start of the trip.” This means that the committee may enforce the deadline and deny a late trip request even when the member making the request is not to blame for missing the deadline.
What can you do about this? For one, you can try to educate potential trip sponsors about the approval requirement and the importance of advance planning. If there are individuals or entities that seem to be regular trip sponsors or that you anticipate as potential future trip sponsors, you can make them aware now of the member’s need to seek approval from the Ethics Committee well in advance of a trip.
As you probably know, one of the forms that members must submit when requesting the committee’s approval for travel is a Private Sponsor Certification Form. This multipage form must be filled out by the proposed sponsor of the trip. In addition to the information on the form itself, the sponsor also must attach a “detailed agenda of the activities taking place during the travel (i.e., an hourly description of planned activities).” The form reiterates the 30-day advance notice requirement and states: “The failure to provide the Committee with adequate time to review the form and attachments may result in the invitee not receiving approval for the trip.”
The new rules go into effect for travel beginning April 1, which means requests relating to trips that day must be made by March 1. Of course, it is possible that the Ethics Committee will consider requests even when some of the necessary information comes in after the 30-day deadline. However, given that your member depends on you to handle his travel, I imagine you don’t want to take that chance.
C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.
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.