Food or Refreshments of a Nominal Value (Attendance at Receptions)

   Members and staff frequently receive invitations to attend events that are less elaborate or formal than the ones for which a sponsor’s offer of free attendance may be accepted under one of the gift rule exceptions or general waivers the Committee has issued for events which include a meal (i.e., widely attended events, charity fundraising events, fundraising or campaign events sponsored by a political organization, educational events, and regularly scheduled events sponsored by a constituent group).  These events may take different forms but often are in the setting of a business meeting, reception (including a holiday or other social event), or similar gathering that includes nonmeal food items and drinks.  In these circumstances, Members and staff should consider whether the invitation may be accepted under the gift rule exception for “[f]ood or refreshments of a nominal value offered other than as a part of a meal” (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(3)(U)).  However, several limitations of this provision should be noted.

   Questions will arise as to whether it is permissible to accept nominal value food or refreshments offered other than in a business meeting, reception, or similar setting.  In its report prior to the original enactment of this provision in 1995, the House Rules Committee indicated that the exception covers “reception food.”38  Soon after the new gift rule was adopted, the Committee indicated that the types of food that could be accepted under the provision include “coffee and donuts, hors d’oeuvres at a reception.”39  In 2000, the Standards Committee issued further written guidance that specifically described the kinds of food and refreshments that may be accepted under the provision, including coffee, juice, pastry, or bagels usually offered at a breakfast reception or meeting, and hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, and beverages usually offered at an evening reception.40

   Also in this regard, the intent of the gift rule enacted at the beginning of the 110th Congress to ban most gifts from lobbyists and organizations that employ them should be taken into account.  Accordingly, food and refreshments of the nature described above may be accepted under this provision only when offered at a business meeting, reception, or similar gathering.  It is now impermissible, for example, for a Member or staff person to accept food or refreshments under this provision in a one-on-one setting with a registered lobbyist.41

   Even if offered in an appropriate setting, food or refreshments that exceed “a nominal value” may not be accepted under this provision.  The rule does not define “nominal value,” and Members and staff are accordingly cautioned to exercise reasonable judgment in accepting food or refreshments having a value greater than the examples given above.

   Furthermore, the provision does not allow the acceptance of a meal, or of food or refreshments offered as part of a meal.  Thus even a low-cost meal (for example, sandwiches or hot dogs) may not be accepted under this provision.

        Example 33.  A trade association invites House staff to attend a holiday reception in its offices featuring hors d’oeuvres and drinks.  Provided that the food and refreshments are of “nominal value” and offered “other than as part of a meal,” House staff may attend the reception and accept these items.

        Example 34.  A lobbyist invites a staff person out for a cup of coffee to discuss the status of a pending bill.  The staff person is free to meet with the lobbyist, but because the occasion is not a reception the staff person may not accept a cup of coffee from the lobbyist even though the item is of low cost and offered other than as a part of a meal.