When a seriously ill constituent asked if Rep. Katie Porter could raise awareness of potentially life-saving bone marrow drives in her Southern California district this month, a simple constituent service turned into a sticky House ethics issue.
Now Porter is questioning whether rules designed to prevent misuse of taxpayer dollars need to be reviewed.
Porter became involved after learning that Orange County, California, resident Liyna Anwar, 29, needed help finding a donor to help fight acute myeloid leukemia.
After her aides reached out to the House Ethics Committee, Porter learned last week she could not promote any of the nine bone marrow registry events happening in California on Friday, where Anwar’s possible match could join the database of donors.
House rules include a blanket prohibition on lawmakers promoting events held by private entities, including nonprofits. That includes DKMS, an international organization that advocates for more people to register as blood stem cell donors.
According to the House Ethics Manual, a “member may not use any congressional resources for the event, including assigning employees to assist in organizing the event, using official letterhead or other expressions or symbols of official sponsorship, or using the frank or inside mail for sending invitations.”
That means Porter could not use her official Twitter feed to promote DKMS donor drives to her approximately 137,000 followers, or use her free mailing privileges as a House member (“the frank”) to let her district know about the events.
Porter is allowed, however, to post about the drives on her campaign Twitter account, which she has been doing.
And she voiced her frustration about the House ethics limitations in a tweetstorm on her congressional account last week.
“I called the House Ethics Committee to see if my office would be able to promote the bone marrow drives being organized across the country for this purpose. Their answer: nope,” Porter tweeted.
DKMS is holding events around the country Friday focused on South Asian populations, including at Islamic centers and mosques around California, with the goal of finding a match for Anwar and three other South Asian patients. The events are centered around the Muslim observance of Ramadan.
“Her community is organizing bone marrow registration drives to help find a match for her, and for other people of South Asian descent, who are under-represented in bone marrow registries,” tweeted Porter.
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Fewer people of color are donors
Bone marrow matches are linked to ethnicity, and it is more likely that patient-donor matches will happen between people who share similar ancestry. But patients of color, such as Anwar, are much less likely to find a match because only 20 percent of the approximately 20 million marrow donor registrants are people of color.
Porter is questioning why she is barred from promoting the donor drives, given the political fundraising and influence peddling that is permitted.
“Capitol Hill is bursting with high-paid lobbyists for special interests, but it seems like ordinary people get ignored,” she told Roll Call in a statement. “I’m happy to be part of a new class of members that are questioning congressional leadership and asking them to revisit the old ways of operating.”
Meredith McGehee, the executive director of the ethics advocacy group Issue One, said rules that seem to keep lawmakers from doing good work with organizations are there to prevent more sinister or divisive cases.
“You have to remember that the whole point of these ethics rules is preventative. What you are trying to do here is protect the integrity of the institution,” she said.
Causes could be ‘open to interpretation’
Finding a leukemia patient a viable match for treatment isn’t controversial, but others might be.
“The problem that arose is that while there may be some organizations or causes that are seen as universally laudable, many, many others are obviously open to interpretation,” said McGehee.
And even nonprofits that everyone agrees make a positive impact can be used to curry favor with lawmakers who have pet causes.
Porter was not backing down.
“I want the American people to know how backwards our congressional rules can be,” she tweeted. “I understand the rules and I’m going to follow them. I also get why rules have to be strict because they could be abused. But for outsiders like me, sometimes this place just doesn’t make sense. Lots of rules, not a lot of justice.”
James Kirkland, a spokesperson for DKMS, says that his organization did not reach out to Porter last week about the donor drives or her constituent’s case.
“This is this is a constituent-raised issue. We had no contact. It wasn’t a company lobbying her to promote our events,” Kirkland said in an interview.
Senator promoted marrow registry
How ethics rules are applied on Capitol Hill can vary.
Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania gave a floor speech in early 2012 promoting National Marrow Donor Program and announcing he planned to participate in a drive.
“I would like to encourage those interested to attend a bone marrow drive in their community or to join online by visiting the NMDP website at www.getswabbed.org,” he told colleagues on the floor of the Senate. “The bone marrow donor program is a cause close to my family’s heart.”
He also put a spotlight on one of his constituents and an event being held to find them a match.
“One in particular, known as Simon’s Saturday, will take place in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. The bone marrow donor drive is named after Simon Ernst, an energetic 8-year-old from Upper Milford, who is bravely battling leukemia and awaiting a bone marrow transplant,” Toomey said.
Under House ethics rules, Porter could serve as an “honorary co-host” or guest speaker at a private group’s event, provided the invitation clearly identifies the sponsor of the event.
In 2016 then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and then-Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer were honorary co-hosts of an event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Love Hope Strength Foundation and DKMS. The event was aimed at getting members of Congress, their staff and visitors on Capitol Hill to swab their cheek and join the donor registry.
“If Rep. Porter was able to hold some event on Capitol Hill, not only is the drive itself helpful, it raises the profile of this issue, and can encourage people on a far wider scale, which is what we look for when we work with celebrities or politicians,” said DKMS spokesman Kirkland.