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Members, officers, and employees may accept “[a]n item, the receipt of which is authorized by the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, or any other statute” (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(3)(N)).
Special rules apply to gifts from foreign governments. The Constitution prohibits federal government officials, including Members and employees of Congress, from receiving “any present . . . of any kind whatever” from a foreign state or a representative of a foreign government without the consent of the Congress.46 Congress has consented, through the vehicles of the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act (“FGDA”)47 and the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (“MECEA”)48, to the acceptance of certain gifts from foreign governments. The FGDA defines “foreign government” to include not only foreign governments per se, but also international or multinational organizations whose membership is composed of units of foreign governments, and any agent or representative of such a government or organization while acting as such.49 That Act also covers gifts from “quasi-governmental” organizations closely affiliated with, or funded by, a foreign government.
MECEA and the FGDA provisions concerning the acceptance of travel and travel expenses are addressed in the Committee’s guidance on the travel provisions of the gift rule.
In addition to its travel provisions, however, the FGDA authorizes House Members, officers, and employees to accept “a gift of minimal value tendered and received as a souvenir or mark of courtesy.”50 Under implementing regulations issued by this Committee,51 the term “minimal value” as used in the Act is currently defined, by reference to a statutory formula, as $335.52
This provision on minimal value gifts clearly applies to gifts of tangible items. In addition, the Standards Committee has interpreted this provision to permit Members and staff to accept, from a foreign government, meals, entertainment, and local travel in the United States when related to official duties. However, since providing lodging in the United States is not normally viewed as within the realm of diplomatic courtesy, it may not be accepted. Similarly, the Committee’s interpretation does not allow the acceptance of such meals, entertainment, or local travel offered by a lobbyist or agent of a foreign government, because such gifts are not properly deemed as having been “tendered as a souvenir or mark of courtesy” as required by the FGDA.
Example 40. An embassy in Washington has invited a Member to attend a dinner at the embassy. The Member may accept the invitation under the minimal value provision of the FGDA.
Example 41. An embassy official in Washington has invited a staff member to lunch at a local restaurant to discuss pending legislation concerning his country. The staff member may accept the invitation under the minimal value provision of the FGDA.
Example 42. An attorney who is a registered foreign agent has invited a staff member to lunch to discuss pending legislation concerning his client. The staff member may not accept the lunch.
The FGDA further allows a Member or staff person to accept (but not to retain) a gift of more than minimal value, as defined above, when refusal of the gift “would likely cause offense or embarrassment or otherwise adversely affect the foreign relations of the United States.”53 Such gifts, however, are deemed to be accepted on behalf of the United States and become the property of the United States. Within 60 days of accepting such a gift, a Member or staff person must turn the gift over to the Clerk of the House for disposal or, with the consent of this Committee, the recipient may retain the gift for display in his or her office or other official use.41
At the time such a gift is deposited for disposal or official use, the recipient must also complete and sign a foreign gifts disclosure form, and file it with the Standards Committee.42 Copies of the form are available from the Committee office or its website, www.house.gov/ethics. If a Member or employee is uncertain whether the value of a gift exceeds “minimal value” as defined above, the Clerk’s office can arrange for an appraisal.43 Under the Committee’s foreign gifts regulations, the disclosure statements filed by Members and employees are publicly available at the Committee’s office, and their contents are published annually in the Federal Register.44
Additionally, the FGDA allows a Member or employee to accept a gift of an educational scholarship or medical treatment from a foreign government.45
Furthermore, the FGDA applies not only to Members and employees but also to the spouse or dependant of a Member or employee.46