Ethics Rules Cut to the Heart

Posted January 19, 2007 at 6:25pm

If the new ethics rules have you stressed out, don’t have a heart attack.

The American Heart Association wanted to offer Congressional staffers free CPR training to help revive victims of cardiac arrest, but the sweeping gift ban lawmakers approved earlier this month has the program hanging on life support.


The lobbying group for heart health tried to clear the course with the House ethics committee, but panel staffers nixed the idea. They said not only did a boxed lunch and CPR training kits fall afoul of the new rules, but so did the training itself, since it would constitute a “thing of value,” AHA officials said.


House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the gift ban as part of a broad package of rules changes aimed at cleaning up Congressional ethics. It forbids Members of Congress and staffers from taking gifts from lobbyists or any organizations that employ them.


Now, lobbyists, Members and staff face the messy task of navigating the rules’ exemptions and unintended consequences.


The heart association is a nonprofit, but since Senate filings show it spent $460,000 for the first half of last year lobbying on budget, tobacco and health issues, it is covered under the new gift ban.


AHA officials pioneered the training last year, with dual sessions in the House and Senate. This year, however, they axed the planned Jan. 11 event, after talking to House ethics staffers.


The group had wanted to invite about 40 health staffers to participate, offering them a modest lunch of a sandwich, apple and cookie. Attendees also would receive a CPR training kit, including a blow-up dummy and an instructional DVD, which retails for $29.95, association spokeswoman Suzanne Ffolkes said.


But the real purpose of the event, Ffolkes said, was to introduce staffers to the emergency procedure. The group planned to bring in a doctor and several emergency technicians to lead participants through a 40-minute course on CPR basics, as well as how to use automated defibrillators that are stocked throughout House and Senate office buildings.


“It was the actual training they were concerned with,” Ffolkes said of the informal opinion the group received from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. “The training was considered a gift.”


AHA officials said most CPR training sessions, which end with a certification, last about four hours and cost between $40 and $60. Since the Capitol Hill training was only meant to offer basics in the technique, and not to certify staffers, it was impossible to assign it a dollar value.


Ffolkes said the group supports the ethics reforms as a way to level the playing field for nonprofits seeking elbow room in the influence game. And she said the group will work with the ethics committee as it refines its interpretations of the new rules in hopes of finding a way to salvage the event.


But some on and off Capitol Hill blasted the interpretation as a sign reforms written too quickly are reaching too far.


“Reasonable people would say, ‘This is nuts,’” one senior Congressional aide said. “This is a bona fide charity offering to do something educational for House and Senate staffers that could even save lives.”


Corey Rubin, a lobbying ethics lawyer at Kelley Drye, said the new ethics rules could prohibit a range of seemingly legitimate activities on the Hill. “The rules are interpreted so broadly, there will be a lot of unintended consequences,” he said.


Rubin added that the ethics committee is expected to begin issuing interpretations of the new rules shortly, which should go a long way toward clearing up confusion about what, exactly, they mean.


“The guidance will really determine how these rules are enforced and how the regulated community interprets them,” he said. “We’re anxiously awaiting that.”