With campaign season here, Hill staffers are likely to find their duties expanding with election-related tasks.
Press secretaries and senior staff doing paid or volunteer campaign work routinely flock to nearby coffee shops with their personal laptops to send campaign press releases or go on walks to take reporters’ calls about their boss’s re-election. Campaign work has to be done on staffers’ own time, off government property.
Everyone knows there’s supposed to be a separation between official and campaign work. That’s Ethics 101 in Washington.
But even the most black-and-white lines are still crossed. And in reality, some lines — like what constitutes government time — are murky, especially when enforcement is lacking.
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Emails and tweets gone wrong
Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s office found out the hard way earlier this year when the New Jersey Democrat’s communications director emailed reporters from his government email address about the congressman’s fourth-quarter fundraising numbers.
Not only was the email sent from a government email address with the communications director’s official title in the signature, but the closing line of the email instructed reporters to reach out about the fundraising numbers to that same email address.
“He just messed up, it’s an honest mistake,” a source with the Gottheimer campaign told Roll Call on Jan. 30, the day the email was sent. “He’s new, he’s young.”
The staffer started with Gottheimer in October but is no longer with the office. According to his LinkedIn profile, he was Washington press secretary for Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar for six months before that.
House employees are required to take an hour of ethics training per year, either online or in person. New employees must receive training within 60 days of their start.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust filed an ethics complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics against Gottheimer.
Gottheimer’s office said the incident was a violation of office policy. “The office has a very strict policy banning any campaign work on official time,” press secretary Matt Fried told The Bergen Record in January. “We re-issued our guidelines and reminded everyone to be meticulous in following the rules.”
Gottheimer is not the only vulnerable member whose office has been on the receiving end of such complaints. The Nebraska Democratic Party sent a complaint to the OCE alleging that freshman Republican Rep. Don Bacon misused taxpayer dollars when he sent tweets from his official Twitter account that criticized predecessor — and likely 2018 challenger — Brad Ashford. Bacon’s office said Wednesday it’s never received notice of the complaint.
Official resources cannot be used for campaign purposes, and campaign resources cannot be used for official purposes. That’s the basic takeaway from the House and Senate ethics guidelines.
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Resources are broadly defined and can include time, electronic equipment, physical space and office supplies. Schedulers in the House and Senate can coordinate with the campaign when it comes to the member’s schedule.
Senators can designate three official staffers to solicit and handle campaign funds, but they must still do so on their own time without using government resources.
That’s all fairly straightforward. But things get confusing when it comes to time.
“The time when you’re on the clock for the taxpayer and when you’re on the clock for the campaign is a total grey area,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, whose bipartisan board pushes for new campaign finance and ethics laws.
The House Ethics Manual advises staffers to keep records of their time. But then it adds: “There is no set format for maintaining such time records.”
“Of all the rules, it is probably the one most abused,” McGehee said. “It’s up to offices to police themselves,” she said, noting most don’t keep time sheets.
“You’re technically not supposed to do anything during work hours, but does that mean the time in D.C. or in the home state?” asked one former staffer who used to work for a Midwestern senator. When the Senate was in session, he would often do campaign work from 6 to 9 p.m. because he could still reach in-state reporters.
“I just had to do a shit-ton on the weekends,” he added.
Staffers often save up their vacation days to volunteer on the campaign late in the fall.
But in the case of staffers being paid by both the government and the campaign, the source of the salary needs to be commensurate with the work they’re doing. For example, chiefs shouldn’t be receiving 90 percent of their salary from the government if they're mostly doing campaign work.
“To be honest, it’s almost impossible to prove somebody’s doing this unless you know someone spends all their time in the campaign office or calling donors,” said a Democratic source familiar with ethics rules.
Other rules can trip up staffers. There are caps on how much senior staff can earn from outside sources, including from the campaign. That rule earned Arizona GOP Rep. David Schweikert’s chief an ethics complaint.
Reimbursements are also tricky. Official staffers can’t use their own money to buy something for the campaign, even if they’re promptly reimbursed. That’d be considered an illegal in-kind contribution since staffers cannot contribute to their boss’s campaign.
Official staffers aren’t supposed to be pressured to do campaign work, but in reality, that’s not the case, McGehee said.
“If you’re a team player, you’ll volunteer to go out,” McGehee said of the prevailing perception.
“It’s similar to sexual assault in some ways,” she said of a staffer speaking up against the pressure to do campaign work. “If you make a choice as a staffer to go down this path and complain, go to OCE or the Ethics Committee, you have de facto decided your career on the Hill is over.”
Facing re-election in a district President Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2016, Gottheimer’s done what any consultant would tell him to do: break with his party on difficult votes and raise lots of money.
The National Republican Congressional Committee called his office’s email incident a “troubling misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Ethics complaints can be fodder for political attacks, but they generally don’t stick unless they contribute to a broader narrative about a member abusing his or her office.
For example, Nevada Republicans in 2011 filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat who was running for Senate, alleging that she used her office to enrich herself. The New York Times had already published a story about how Berkley’s office often took actions that benefited her husband’s business interests.
“She was never able to overcome that piece,” the Democratic source said.
Early in the 2016 campaign cycle, Democrats tried to use alleged misuses of taxpayer money by Utah Rep. Mia Love to try to paint a broader narrative about a rising Republican star who was out of touch with her district. She still won re-election by 12 points.
With so many House Republicans finding themselves in potentially competitive races for the first time, one Democratic operative suggested some offices may find themselves unprepared for how to navigate the lines between campaign and official work. Still, when ethics complaints do pop up, many disappear or take years to resolve, often outlasting the election cycle.
“Offices and their attorneys are very good at slow-walking this process to drag it out as long as possible,” said the Democratic source familiar with ethics rules.
Small things — like Gottheimer’s email mishap — aren’t likely to become a political vulnerability. But responding to even minor ethics complaints — which anyone can file — can be distracting and, ultimately, costly when it comes to legal fees.