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What Rules Apply When Members of Congress Date Lobbyists?

Shuster said he has "gone above and beyond what the rules require" to make sure his relationship is appropriate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Confronted with questions about how his relationship with an aviation industry lobbyist might impact his chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said he has "gone above and beyond what the rules require, what the law requires to make sure that we're doing things appropriately."  

“I’ve been very transparent," Shuster said Tuesday at a National Journal event, describing his romantic involvement with Shelley Rubino, vice president for global government affairs at Airlines for America, as "a personal and private relationship" that complies with House rules and federal law. "I know a lot of people that are lobbyists in this town but, again, I think we can do these things as professionals,” he added.  

One obvious consideration for a member dating a lobbyist is the House gift rule. Shuster succeeded his father, Bud, who chaired the same committee. The elder Shuster faced his own controversy related to those rules in his relationship with a transportation industry lobbyist.

The House Ethics Committee has established detailed guidelines on gifts ranging from tangible items to services, including tickets, meals and lodging. Members are permitted to accept gifts of personal friendship. But a gift worth more than $250 must be approved by the committee  in writing  before a member may accept the gift under the personal friendship exception.

Similarly, the Code of Ethics for Government Service admonishes every government employee, “Never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not; and never accept for [oneself] or [one’s] family, favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his governmental duties.”  

Complicating the matters for Shuster, his committee is working on an overhaul of the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency’s funding runs out Sept. 30, and reauthorization has revived debates over the federal role in overseeing commercial aspects of airline operations, such as air traffic control.  

When it comes to regulations and codes of conduct, the House Ethics Manual has clear instructions for members who are married or immediately related to lobbyists, but it's less clear on other close relationships, such as romances. House rules prohibit all staff employed by that member, whether in a personal, committee or leadership office, from making any lobbying contact with the spouse, under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.  

"Special caution must be exercised when the spouse of a Member or staff person, or any other immediate family member, is a lobbyist. At a minimum, such an official should not permit the spouse to lobby either him- or herself or any of his or her subordinates," the manual states.  

Shuster told Politico , which reported news of the relationship, that his office has a policy against Rubino lobbying his office, including himself and his staff. But the report points out that A4A has lobbied other members on legislation that Shuster personally introduced, and picked up Shuster's language on certain issues.  

The reports do not appear to have shaken Speaker John A. Boehner's confidence in Shuster. During an April 23 press conference, the Ohio Republican said he was “very comfortable that proper procedures were put in place to avoid a public or professional conflict of interest."  

Shuster has never thought of recusing himself from aviation, he said during the Thursday event. "I think people in this town know my integrity level. I'm going to be at the table. I've got a lot of stakeholders. I guarantee you everybody's going to walk away from this deal hopefully saying, 'Well, it's pretty good ... It's not perfect.'"  

The House Ethics Committee declined to comment on rules related to members dating lobbyists.  

A formal probe into Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield’s office marks the third time congressional investigators have launched an investigative subcommittee on one of the murkiest subjects in the ethics manual : financial conflicts of interest. On March 27, the committee announced that its 10 members have voted unanimously to form an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Whitfield violated any law, rule or regulation with respect to ties to his lobbyist wife, Constance Harriman Whitfield.  

Related: Throwback Thursday: Bud Shuster Lodging With Ex-Aide-Turned-Lobbyist Ed Whitfield’s Ties to Lobbyist Wife Subject of House Ethics Probe (Updated)

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