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Know Before You Go: An Ethics Overview for Capitol Hill Holiday Parties

'Tis the Season: Holiday parties are coming to Capitol Hill. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The holiday party scene between K Street and Capitol Hill is a lot more complicated than simply deciding which event sounds like the most fun and what to wear.  

Why?  

Enter the party police, also known as congressional ethics regulations.  

The same congressional ethics regulations that ban lobbyists from treating lawmakers and staff to most lunches, dinners or other gifts also govern the December social circuit in Washington.  

But Hill staffers — even newbies — and lawmakers need not hang up their Santa hats and skip the soirees. The “reception exemption” is the top carve out to the rules that most K Street party planners employ to let the good times roll.  

“If it looks like a reception, then it’s OK,” said William Minor, a lawyer at DLA Piper who specializes in ethics and lobbying laws. “Members and staff are allowed to attend a reception that’s purely social and a holiday celebration.”  

But beware anything that looks like a meal, or even opulent tiny bites such as caviar or truffles.  

The House Ethics panel issued fresh guidance last year, reminding congressional denizens that the reception exception “does not include full meals or luxury items, such as caviar.” The committee even wrote a poem to jazz up its guidance .  

That’s why ethics lawyers such as Minor like to (sort of) joke that you must eat your food standing up with a toothpick.  

For those wishing to offer a little more nourishment to their guests, they can use the “widely attended event” exception, but in order to qualify, the shindig needs to have some purpose related to the official duties of members and their aides, Minor said.  

That typically means a policy speech or a program and needs a diverse audience of at least 25 invitees. The House Ethics Committee states that a widely attended event must "relate to the Members’ or employees’ official duties.”  

“There’s an expectation there’s something substantive,” Minor said. “You don’t have to have speeches and a panel discussion, but you have to have a connection to your official duties.”  

The firm Public Strategies Washington, on its holiday party invite, advises its would-be guests, “This party is a widely attended event” for its Dec. 3 shindig at Hill Country BBQ.  

Many K Street groups are billing their fetes as receptions, including Airlines for America, which is hosting a “Holiday Reception” in the Capitol on Dec. 1. The invitation mimics a boarding pass and includes the disclaimer, “This reception has been planned to comply with congressional ethics rules for such events.”  

The video game lobby, the Entertainment Software Association, also is doing a Dec. 3 party at the Warner Building and advises, “This event is a reception under House and Senate Rules.”  

Even the lobbying, ethics and campaign finance watchdog Common Cause is getting in on the holiday party action, hosting a Dec. 3 open house at its offices.  

Chris DeLacy, an ethics lawyer at Holland & Knight, said the reception exception is the simplest “and probably my favorite.”  

Neither the House Ethics nor Senate Ethics panels would comment on the record, but ethics experts such as DeLacy said that when in doubt, staffers and lawmakers ought to call on those committees — even just for informal advice. He suggests K Street party planners do the same, so the panel can open a file on a particular event and which can help them advise on whether it seems to be in line with the rules.  

“They will take your call and answer your questions,” DeLacy said. “They won’t approve the event, but they will tell you if it sounds problematic.”  

Coming up: Hill Navigator's Guide to Navigating Holiday Parties. Sign up to receive all Hill Navigator columns via email, on the right hand sidebar under "SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL." Related stories: Hill Navigator's Guide to Sending Holiday Cards May Campaign Funds Be Used For Holiday Gifts? Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.