Foreign Gifts Test Rules
Even as new ethics restrictions have made it difficult for Members and staff to accept gifts — aside from token baseball caps or T-shirts — one area remains where lawmakers and their staffs can collect trinkets more or less guilt-free: foreign travel.
Under both House and Senate ethics rules, lawmakers and aides must comply with federal laws regulating the acceptance of gifts from foreign governments. The Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act allows lawmakers and staff to accept gifts valued at or less than “minimal value” — the current House threshold is $335 through 2010, while the Senate standard is a mere $100.
Determining whether a Member or aides have received such items, however, can be downright murky, particularly in the House, where the higher gift limit — and loose guidance for determining market values — prompts few, if any, disclosures that are required for high-value items.
According to annual foreign gift reports compiled by the State Department’s Office of Protocol from 1999 to 2006, the most recent year available, fewer than a dozen House lawmakers listed diplomatic gifts. By comparison, Senate disclosures show between two and 19 Senators reporting multiple gifts each of those years.
A review of records filed with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct shows no lawmakers have reported receiving any tangible items worth more than the $335 limit in the 110th Congress.
In fact, only former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office filed gift disclosures so far in the 110th Congress, although those documents are actually amended versions of earlier forms.
Both House and Senate aides offered various explanations for the dearth of tangible gift reports, including the higher threshold for disclosure in the House — numerous Senate listings value items simply as “over $100” — but they also pointed to nebulous guidelines for determining the value of items.
“There’s nothing more difficult that valuing an object that was given to you by a foreign dignitary,” said Stefan Passantino, an ethics law expert at McKenna Long & Aldridge who served as counsel to Hastert and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Under recent Republican majorities, Passantino said Members would be directed to determine an item’s marketplace value in part by finding comparable items on Web sites such as eBay or Craigslist. In addition, Congressional aides speaking on background acknowledged Members’ offices also look to similar filings to determine an item’s worth.
According to House ethics rules, the Clerk of the House is responsible for providing evaluations of items when a Member is unable to determine the value.
A spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Clerk’s office, said a “professional appraiser” is brought in on a case-by-case basis for Members’ requests. Of the 12 inquiries made to the office in 2008, all items were evaluated at less than $335.
But one senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, asserted that it is not only Members who are cognizant of the rules, but foreign officials and their own staffs.
“Experienced diplomats and foreign officials clearly understand the rules set in place and avoid giving gifts that exceed the limit,” the Democratic aide said. He said Members, given the heightened focus on ethics and gifts recently, are more likely to decline items.
It is unusual for Members to decline a gift, however, because doing so could be viewed as an insult to the foreign government offering the item and interfere with diplomatic relations, Passantino said.
“There’s always been a high sensitivity to those types of gifts,” he said.
In Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D) ceremonial office just off the House floor, a curio cabinet houses numerous diplomatic tchotchkes given to the Californian since her ascension to the top House post in early 2007.
Among the items are a silver bowl from Canadian House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken, a $10 coin from Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, three goblets from Czech Republic Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, a blue lapis vase from Afghan Parliament Speaker Mohammad Yonus Qanooni and a decorative bear from German Bundestag President Norbert Lammert.
A Pelosi spokesman said the items on display do not meet the reporting threshold. The House Ethics Manual emphasizes that diplomatic gifts should be generally “tendered and received as a souvenir or mark of courtesy.”
While Members and aides are allowed to receive items of greater value when “refusal of the gift ‘would likely cause offense or embarrassment or otherwise adversely affect the foreign relations of the United States,’” under ethics rules, federal law dictates those gifts are to be accepted only on behalf of the United States and cannot be kept by the lawmaker.
In those instances, Members are required to submit the gift within a 60-day period to the Clerk of the House to record and must also disclose the item to the ethics committee. Items can be loaned back to a lawmaker to display in their office or for “other official use” with the permission of the ethics panel. Senators must similarly turn items over to the Secretary of the Senate.
The disclosures, which are publicly available, also are compiled annually by the State Department’s Office of Protocol and published in the Federal Register, along with a list of official gifts provided to executive branch officials and Senate lawmakers.
But a review of those House and Senate records published in the Federal Register shows that even lawmakers traveling in the same delegation do not always issue identical reports.
In December 2006, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) traveled to Afghanistan along with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and John Thune (R-S.D.).
Although McCain declared Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave him a “Persian rug” valued at $300 to $400 and a “carved stone box with flowers on lid” worth $200 — declaring on his disclosure report that “non- acceptance would cause donor embarrassment” — none of his traveling companions filed reports for gifts received during the same trip.
After being contacted by Roll Call, a Thune aide said the office planned to file a gift report with the ethics committee listing two rugs, one from Iraq and one from Afghanistan, estimated at $300 each.
“We’re filing the paper work with ethics now,” said spokesman Kyle Downey, who called the matter an “administrative oversight.” The rugs are on display in the Senator’s Sioux Falls, S.D., office.
A Collins spokeswoman said Wednesday that she could not confirm whether the Senator received any items during the trip. (According to a 2005 gift report, Collins previously received a rug valued at $1,800 from Karzai and requested to keep the item for official display.)
A Kirk spokesman could not comment on the matter before press time Friday.
Nonetheless, McCain’s disclosures do not appear to be unusual; according to the State Department’s annual report for calendar year 2006, Karzai also presented Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) with a $1,500 rug in January 2006, and Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) with blue lapis boxes in March 2006, estimated at approximately $750 each. Both Warner and Levin also listed receiving blue lapis bowls — valued at “over $100” and $450 respectively — from Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak in November 2006.
By comparison, a contingent of House lawmakers — including Pelosi, Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), then-Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), and Reps. David Hobson (R-Ohio), John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) — traveled just a few months later, in January 2007, to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Germany, and there are no indications of similar diplomatic exchanges.
Members and their staffs did, however, file numerous disclosures indicating travel expenses provided by foreign governments, which is permitted under both the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act as well as the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act.