Q. I worked on the campaign of someone who has just been elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, and I expect to work for him in the House as well beginning in January. I recently met with some experienced staffers to learn the ins-and-outs of working on the Hill. One thing they filled me in on is how strict the gift limitations are, but what really stuck out was that the permissibility of a gift supposedly can depend somehow on the language of the tag or card that comes with it. I had trouble wrapping my head around this. Is this really true?
Q. I heard that Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., may face ethics discipline because he assisted companies in which he owned stock. I know that Members are not supposed to use their position for their own personal gain, but I didnít realize that meant they are disqualified from taking action on behalf of any companies in which they might own stock. Is that really the rule?
A famous Tacitus quote about government corruption raises a chicken and egg question. One common translation is: ďThe more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.Ē But it is also sometimes cited as, ďThe more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the state.Ē
Q. I have a question about your recent article on how House ethics rules could be affected by the Supreme Courtís decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. I am in a same-sex marriage with a House staffer that the law recognizes in our state. My question concerns the financial disclosure forms my spouse must file each year with the House. I know that these forms generally ask for information concerning the filer and the filerís spouse but that this has never applied to same-sex spouses. I am a private person and donít like the idea of the public knowing about my financial affairs. While my spouse and I of course were elated about the Supreme Court decision, I am concerned that it might mean he must start including my information on his disclosure forms. Does it?
Q. I am a House staffer in a same-sex marriage, and I have a question about the effect of the Supreme Courtís decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act upon House ethics rules. For example, the law firm my spouse works for hosts an annual retreat where attorneysí spouses are invited to attend as well. But, as I understand the gift rules, it might violate the rules if I allowed the law firm to pay for my expenses to attend the event. While the rules allow staffers to have their expenses paid for at spousesí events such as these, I have generally not qualified as a ďspouse.Ē Does the DOMA ruling change things with respect to House ethics rules like this one?
Q. I am a lobbyist with a question about lobbying disclosure forms. Technically, I know am supposed to file these forms a few times each year, and I always do. But sometimes I wonder why I bother. I know of other lobbyists who often miss the deadline for filing their forms and some who donít file them at all, and they never seem to face any consequences. Am I wasting my time by filing the forms? Or does the requirement to file them actually have teeth?
Q. I have a question about the fines recently levied against former Sen. John Ensign and his parents by the Federal Election Commission. I thought that the FEC dropped its case against the Ensigns years ago. If thatís right, what changed between then and now that resulted in fines?
Q. I am chief of staff for a member of the House with a question about how House ethics rules might impact staffers on furlough. The recent sequester has cut budgets for membersí offices, and we are working through how to deal with the cuts. I am wondering whether the rules would allow staffers to do part-time work with their former law firms if they are placed on furlough. I know that conflict-of-interest rules prohibit staffers from doing some types of outside work, including legal work for clients. But, would this restriction apply to staffers on furlough? And, would it apply even if the staffers were to do purely administrative work and perform no legal services at a law firm?
Q. I have a question about the recent news of an audio recording of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. I know that there has been a great deal of focus on the legality of the recording and it being leaked. But, I have now also seen some news about allegations against McConnell, himself, arising out of the recording. Is there any merit to the charges against McConnell?
Q. I am a House staffer with a question about members participating in special ďVIPĒ discount programs that some businesses offer. The member I work for is preparing to buy a new boat, and the company he is buying from has placed him in a special VIP discount program. Iím concerned that this is the type of special treatment that might violate ethics laws. Do the ethics rules permit members to participate in a businessís VIP program?
I have a question about investigations by the Office of Congressional Ethics. Iíve read stories about OCE investigations of members where it appeared that the OCE used a witnessís refusal to cooperate with the investigation against the member being investigated, even though the member had no control over the witnessís refusal to cooperate. This made no sense to me. Why should a member be penalized for someone elseís refusal to cooperate with an investigation?
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 Committeeís 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. Iím 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?
This column was born in the wake of the government ethics boom of 2006. In elections that fall, Democrats seized control of Congress, in part by riding a wave of heightened concern about government corruption. Legislation followed, and the issue of ethics enjoyed more public attention than it had received in years.