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Below is a condensed version of this topic. For complete guidance please refer to the House Ethics Manual, Chapter 3 on travel.
During the 110th Congress, the travel provisions of the gift rule (House Rule XXV, clauses 5(b), (c), and (d)) were substantially revised to impose new restrictions and requirements on officially-connected travel paid for by a private source. 2 These restrictions and requirements are the most significant changes made in the travel provisions since the modern gift rule took effect on January 1, 1996. Specifically, the revised provisions –
The fundamental requirement of the travel provisions of the gift rule is that the subject matter of the trip must be related to the official duties of the participating Member, officer, or employee. Among the travel purposes that may be proper under this provision are attendance at a meeting or a speaking engagement, or participation in a fact-finding trip (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)(A)).
When a Member, officer, or employee requests approval to accept travel, the rule specifically requires that a determination be made that the travel is in connection with the individual’s official duties. As phrased in the rule (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(3)(G)), travel must be –
in connection with the [individual’s] duties as an officeholder and would not create the appearance that the [individual] is using public office for private gain.
Members and staff requesting approval from the Committee on Ethics to accept travel paid for by a private source must demonstrate compliance with this requirement. Pursuant to the travel guidelines and regulations the Committee has issued, the Committee considers a number of factors in determining whether to approve a travel request, including –
Concerning the last factor, the gift rule states that “events, the activities of which are substantially recreational in nature, are not considered to be in connection with the duties of [the individual] as an officeholder.” (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)(B).)
Member and staff participation on a trip is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and travelers are required to explain to the Committee – through the completion of a Traveler Form – how attendance on a given trip relates to the individual’s official and representational duties. For staff travel, the rule provides that it is the responsibility of the individual’s employing Member or officer to provide a signed, written statement that the Member or officer deems the travel to comply with this requirement. That explanation, together with the rest of the information on the form, is among the information made publicly available after the trip.
While expenses for officially-connected travel may be accepted, Members and staff may not accept expenses from a private source for travel the primary purpose of which is to conduct official business. Clauses 1-3 of House Rule XXIV prohibit the acceptance of private support – both monetary and in-kind – for official House activities. Thus, when the primary purpose of a trip is to conduct official business, such as general oversight activities within a committee’s jurisdiction, the expenses must be paid with official House funds.
The travel provisions of the gift rule severely limit the ability of Members and staff to accept travel from an entity that employs or retains a registered lobbyist or a registered agent of a foreign principal (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)).4 Included in this limitation are any companies, firms, nonprofit organizations (including charities), and other private entities that retain or employ a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal. However, a trip sponsored by an institution of higher education that retains or employs a lobbyist (or foreign agent) is subject to different rules, which are discussed below.
One-Day Event Trips. The sole exception to the general prohibition on accepting officially-connected travel from a private source that retains or employs lobbyists or agents of a foreign principal is for trips involving attendance at or participation in a “one-day event (exclusive of travel time and an overnight stay)” (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)(C)).
Under the rule, it is permissible for a Member or staff person to accept a single night’s lodging and meals related to the trip, if offered by the trip sponsor. Members and staff must limit their involvement in connection with the event to a single calendar day, exclusive of travel time and an overnight stay. A Member or staff person may therefore attend only a single day of a multiple-day conference, forum, or other event that is being hosted primarily for individuals other than congressional invitees.
Under the Committee’s travel regulations and guidelines implementing the travel provisions of the gift rule,5 the Committee may permit a second night’s stay when determined “on a case-by-case basis to be practically required to participate in the one-day event” (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)(C)). Some circumstances in which the Committee may permit a second night’s stay are for certain long-distance trips, when a Member or staff person is participating in a full day’s worth of officially-connected activities such that a second night’s stay is necessary to accomplish the purpose of the trip, or other exceptional circumstances that are described in detail by the traveler.6 The traveler will be personally responsible for any expenses incurred beyond those allowed by the Committee in connection with the second night’s stay. For guidance concerning extending a trip at one’s personal expense, see the discussion under the heading “Extending a Trip at Personal Expense,” below.
Members and staff may participate in a multiple-day trip only if the trip is one that is sponsored by a private source that does not retain a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal, or if the trip is being paid for directly by “an institution of higher education.”7 The time limits concerning such trips are as follows.
Travel Within the Continental United States. For travel within the continental United States, a Member, officer, or employee may be permitted to accept travel expenses for up to, but for no more than, four days inclusive of travel time. The Committee has interpreted the four-day time limit to consist of four 24-hour periods. Thus, a Member, officer, or employee must commence his or her return trip to Washington or the congressional district no later than 96 hours after beginning the trip.
Travel Outside the Continental United States. For travel outside the continental United States – including travel to a foreign country, or to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or any other U.S. territory or commonwealth – a Member, officer, or employee may be permitted to accept travel expenses for up to, but no more than, seven days exclusive of travel time. The Committee interprets this provision to mean that any days spent in whole or in part in traveling to or from the United States do not count toward the seven-day limit. However, time spent traveling between foreign countries does count toward the limit.
Extending the Time Limits. Although the rule (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(4)(A)) authorizes the Committee to approve requests to extend the four- and seven-day time limits (but not the time limit for one-day event trips8), the Committee grants such requests only in truly extraordinary circumstances. The fact that a particular conference, or a fact-finding trip organized by an outside entity, is scheduled to last longer than the time periods set forth in the rule ordinarily will not suffice as grounds for a waiver. An example of a situation that would warrant a waiver is when the destination is so remote that it receives air service only once every ten days. In this regard, it should be noted that these limitations on trip length were imposed out of concern for “the public perception that such trips often may amount to paid vacations for the Member and his family at the expense of special interest groups.”9
Further Restrictions on the Length of Multiple-Day Trips. The four- and seven-day limits described above reflect the maximum period for which a Member, officer, or employee may accept expenses from a private source for officially-connected travel. A further restriction on trip length results from the requirement that only “necessary transportation, lodging, and related expenses for travel” may be accepted (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)(A) (emphasis added)). That is, a Member, officer, or employee will be permitted by the Committee to accept only such expenses as are reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose of the trip, and thus it may not always be permissible to accept expenses being offered for a full multiple-day period. This is particularly so when the sole purpose of an individual’s travel to an event is to give a speech. Therefore, as a general matter, the Committee will grant approval for a Member, officer, or employee to accept travel, lodging, and meal expenses for the full time periods only if, after reviewing the trip itinerary, the Committee determines that those expenses are reasonably necessary for the officially-connected purpose of the trip to be accomplished. In making this determination, the Committee takes into account whether there is any free time on the trip, as well as the amount of free time, being offered to the traveler.
Extending a Trip at Personal Expense. Provided that the officially-connected purpose of the trip remains the primary purpose of the trip, travelers may be permitted to extend trips (in connection with either one-day or multiple-day travel) at their own expense and on their own time and still accept return transportation.10 Subject to the same condition, a traveler may depart early for the initial location of a trip and take personal days there, at the individual’s own expense, before the start of the officially-connected part of the trip, and still accept outbound transportation from the trip sponsor.11 However, a traveler will not be permitted to accept additional reimbursements to cover the costs of personal travel. Moreover, as a general rule, when the number of days for personal travel exceeds the number of days of the privately-sponsored trip, the gift rule does not permit acceptance of round-trip transportation from the private source. Especially with regard to extending a one-day event trip at one’s own personal expense, Members and staff should consult the Committee’s Office of Advice and Education for guidance before arranging the travel.
Example 1. A private university invites a staff person to participate in a five-day conference in London. After the conference ends, she wishes to take four vacation days in Europe. The staff person will be permitted to accept reimbursement from the university for her expenses in London and for the cost of round-trip airfare to and from London. She may then continue her travels at her own expense. If the extension of the trip results in higher airfare for the flights between the U.S. and London than would have been charged had the trip not been extended, the staff person must personally pay the difference.
“Stacking” Trips. A Member, officer, or employee may be permitted to travel beyond applicable time limits if the individual is participating in consecutive but distinct trips, sponsored by different organizations. To qualify for “stacking,” the trips and their purposes, sponsors, and participants must be truly distinct. When these circumstances are present, a new time limit commences with the onset of travel to, or participation in, a separate, subsequent event.
Example 2. A staff person receives an invitation from a corporation to participate in a fact-finding tour of Yellowstone National Park that will depart from Washington on February 1 and return on February 4. The staff person also receives a separate invitation from a nonprofit organization to attend a conference in Phoenix from February 4 through 7. Neither entity retains or employs lobbyists. The staffer may be permitted to “stack” these trips because they are separate and distinct.
Ban on Lobbyist Accompaniment and Other Involvement
In addition to prohibiting Members and staff from accepting officially-connected travel from a private source that retains or employs lobbyists or agents of a foreign principal, for most trips the travel provisions of the gift rule prohibit Members and staff from accepting travel from a private source if the official will be accompanied by a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal on “any segment” of the trip (House Rule XXV, clause 5(c)(1)(A)). The term “segment” means any part(s) of the travel to and from the destination, rather than the event itself or location being visited that is the purpose of the trip. Whether a lobbyist may be involved in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging a trip also depends on the source of the travel expenses.
One-Day Event Trips. Accompaniment by a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal on “any segment” of a one-day event trip is prohibited. In addition, under the travel guidelines and regulations issued by the Committee no more than “de minimis” involvement of a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal is permitted in terms of planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging a one-day event trip (House Rule XXV, clause 5(c)(2)). To be permissible, the involvement of a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal in connection with the trip must be “only negligible or otherwise inconsequential in terms of time and expense to the overall planning purpose of the trip.”12
Accordingly, it would be permissible for a lobbyist to respond to a private sponsor’s request that the lobbyist identify Members and staff with a possible interest in a particular issue relevant to a planned trip, provided that the request was not initiated by the lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal, and that the lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal does not determine which Members or staff are actually invited on the trip. A lobbyist or agent of foreign principal may not initiate contact with trip sponsors or planners for purposes of suggesting possible House invitees, nor may a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal have any other role in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging the trip, other than possibly providing the names of possible invitees as described above. Thus, in order for a Member or staff person to receive Committee approval for a trip, a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal should not be involved in –
Multiple-Day Trips. Accompaniment by a lobbyist or foreign agent is prohibited on any travel segment of a multiple-day trip. Members and staff are prohibited from participating in any multiple-day trip that was planned, organized, requested, or arranged by a lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal.
Trips Sponsored by an Institution of Higher Education. Unlike the types of trips described above, accompaniment by a lobbyist or foreign agent is permitted on trips sponsored by an institution of higher education. Lobbyist involvement in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging a trip paid for by an institution of higher education is also permitted.
Among the factors the Committee considers in evaluating a Member or staff person’s request for approval to accept officially-connected travel paid for by a private source is the relationship of that source to the event or location being visited that is the purpose of the trip. Pursuant to the Committee’s travel guidelines and regulations –
Expenses may only be accepted from an entity or entities that have a significant role in organizing and conducting a trip, and that also have a clear and defined organizational interest in the purpose of the trip or location being visited. Expenses may not be accepted from a source that has merely donated monetary or in-kind support to the trip but does not have a significant role in organizing and conducting the trip.13
Even prior to the issuance of the travel guidelines and regulations, the Committee had long taken the position that a Member, officer, or employee may accept expenses for officially-connected travel only from a private source that has a direct and immediate relationship with the event or location being visited.14 Thus, the Committee found a violation of the gift rule when a Member accepted travel expenses from an organization that was not the sponsor of his speaking engagements.15
Example 3. A nonprofit organization that is active on defense-related issues is holding a conference in New York City. A defense contractor in a Member’s district learns of the conference and believes the Member’s legislative assistant would benefit by attending. The Committee will not approve the staff member’s acceptance of the contractor’s offer of travel expenses to the event, because the contractor does not have a direct and immediate relationship with the conference.
The rule and implementing regulations are concerned with the organization(s) or individual(s) that actually pay for travel. Thus, for example, when a nonprofit organization pays for travel with donations that were earmarked, either formally or informally, for the trip, each such donor is deemed a “private source” for the trip and (1) must be publicly disclosed as a trip sponsor on the applicable travel forms and (2) must itself be required to satisfy the above standards on proper sources of travel expenses.16 The rule requires that a private entity (or entities) that pays for officially-connected travel will organize and conduct the trip, rather than merely pay for a trip that is in fact organized and conducted by another entity. Thus, in order for a Member or staff person to receive Committee approval to accept officially-connected travel from a private source, the source must certify to the Committee that it has not accepted from any other source funds earmarked directly or indirectly to finance any aspect of the trip. The sponsor must also certify that the trip was not financed (in whole or in part) by a federal lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal.
The Committee’s travel guidelines distinguish between –
For travel falling within the former category, the Committee recognizes that flexibility is needed in authorizing travel to events that are organized principally for the benefit of non-congressional attendees. Accordingly, the guidelines treat the location of such events as presumptively valid. While travel to an event or location may be deemed to be presumptively valid, Members and staff must still demonstrate either that the purpose of the trip is related to the individual’s official and representational duties, or that the purpose of the trip relates to matters within the legislative or policy interests of Congress. In addition, there must be sufficient officially-connected activities for the House participants during each day of the trip.
For trips designed specifically for Members and staff, the guidelines require that the location being visited must be necessary to the purpose of the trip, or if more than one possible location may be relevant to the purpose of the trip, the location selected must be reasonable in relation to the alternatives. Factors to be used to evaluate the reasonableness of a location include the nature of the event and its participants. For example, a fact-finding trip regarding a particular industry may be appropriate at one or more locations that have a connection to the industry, but the trip would likely not be appropriate if the destination is a resort location with no connection to the industry. In other words, the selected location should not create the appearance that the Member, officer, or employee attending the event is using his or her public office for personal gain.
Prohibition Against Accepting Local Travel Expenses. The travel provisions of the gift rule do not allow Members or staff to accept what are essentially local meals, local lodging, or local transportation. Thus in order to be within the rule, a trip must have a destination beyond the metropolitan Washington area, or beyond the Member’s district, as the case may be. The Committee has taken the position that as a general matter, the site to be visited at private expense must be at least 35 miles from the U.S. Capitol or, for travel in or near one’s congressional district, at least 35 miles from the district office.
In addition, because official allowances are provided to cover travel expenses of both Members and staff between Washington, D.C., and the congressional district, House Rule XXIV (clauses 1-3), which generally prohibits private subsidy of official activity, is also relevant to local travel. Under House Rule XXIV, a Member or staff person generally is not permitted to accept expenses from a private source for a fact-finding trip to or within one’s own district. For the same reason, district office staff are not permitted to accept travel expenses from a private source for the purpose of fact-finding in the Washington, D.C. area. However, an exception exists when a Member or employee is traveling as part of a group that includes Members or staff representing at least two other congressional districts. In that circumstance, the Committee does not interpret House Rule XXIV to require the official to separate from the group to avoid going into his or her own district.
The Committee does not deem the occasional acceptance of travel expenses to give a speech in one’s own district or in the Washington, D.C. area, or otherwise to participate substantially in an event, to violate House Rule XXIV.
As a related matter, the Committee will generally approve the acceptance of expenses only to or from Washington, D.C., or another duty station. The traveler generally may not accept additional expenses for stopovers that are unrelated to the purpose of the trip.
Under the travel provisions of the gift rule, Members and staff may accept reasonable expenses for transportation, lodging, and meals from the private sponsor of an officially-connected trip, but they may not accept recreational activities or entertainment. Specifically, these provisions state that a Member, officer, or employee may accept “necessary transportation, lodging and related expenses” (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(1)(A)). They further state that the quoted phrase “is limited to reasonable expenditures for transportation, lodging, conference fees and materials, and food and refreshments” (id., clause 5(b)(4)(B) (emphasis added)).
The travel provisions also state that one may not accept “expenditures for recreational activities,” or “entertainment other than that provided to all attendees as an integral part of the event, except for activities or entertainment otherwise permissible under this clause” (id., clause 5(b)(4)(C)). A gift of entertainment or recreational activities may be acceptable under other provisions of the gift rule, but only if valued at less than $50 and provided by a non-prohibited source.17 (See Chapter 2 on gifts for further information). Members and staff therefore may not accept any entertainment or recreation during a trip if the sponsor of the trip retains or employs registered lobbyists or agents of a foreign principal. In general, any gift given to the relative of a Member or staff person is deemed to be a gift to the official and, thus, will be acceptable only as permitted under the gift rule, and an otherwise permissible gift will count against the per-gift and annual limits of the Member or staff person.
The Ethics Committee has issued guidelines for judging the reasonableness of travel expenses that Members, officers, and employees are permitted to accept from a private source for officially-connected travel. The guidelines, along with the regulations concerning one-day event trips, are reprinted in the appendices. The provisions addressing the reasonableness of travel expenses distinguish between transportation expenses on the one hand, and lodging and food expenses on the other. A brief description of the guidelines follows.
Transportation Expenses. Members and staff may accept coach and business-class air or train fare from a private source. However, first-class air or train fare, travel aboard chartered flights and trains, and private aircraft flights are permitted only under limited conditions, such as when the cost of such fare does not exceed business-class transportation (including when the traveler’s frequent flyer or similar benefits are used to upgrade to first class), first-class travel is necessary due to a disability of the traveler, there are genuine security concerns such that first-class fare is required, or the flight is in excess of 14 hours. The Committee may also approve first-class air or train fare, chartered travel, or private aircraft when exceptional circumstances are demonstrated in writing by the private source.
For events falling within the former category, the Committee recognizes that flexibility is needed in authorizing lodging and food expenses in order for Members and staff to participate in or appear at events that are organized principally for the benefit of non-congressional attendees. The guidelines therefore permit Members and staff to accept lodging and food that is commensurate with what is customarily provided to or purchased by the non-congressional attendees in similar circumstances.
With regard to events designed specifically for congressional participation, the guidelines specify that “reasonable” lodging and food expenses may be accepted. In judging the reasonableness of food expenses, the Committee considers the maximum per diem rates for meals and incidental expenses for official government travel published by the General Services Administration or, for international travel, the maximum rate for meals and incidental expenses published by the State Department. The pertinent per diem rate schedules are available on each agency’s website.
It is permissible for a Member, officer, or employee participating in officially-connected travel paid for by a private source to be accompanied by a relative on the trip (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(4)(D)).18 This provision does not allow the acceptance of travel expenses for any accompanying individual other than a relative. Further, this provision allows the acceptance of expenses for only one relative. For example, a Member, officer, or employee, if offered by the sponsor, may accept expenses for a spouse or one child only, not a spouse and a child.19 The travel expenses paid for a relative must be specified by the private source and traveler on the pre-travel forms and reported on travel disclosure forms in the same manner as those paid for the Member, officer, or employee.
Example 4. A Member is invited by organization Y to give a speech in Dallas on Saturday. Organization Z issues an unrelated invitation to the Member to address its members in Dallas on Sunday. Each group offers to pay expenses for the Member and one family member. The Member may bring only one family member to Dallas at the sponsors’ expense. She may not bring her husband at the expense of organization Y and her child at the expense of organization Z because such an arrangement would violate the one-relative restriction of the gift rule.
Example 5. A Member is invited to give a speech. The sponsoring organization offers the Member and his wife business-class airfare. The Member would like to bring his child as well. He may not trade in the two business-class tickets for three economy-class tickets. Even if the sponsor would pay less for the three economy-class tickets than for the two business-class tickets, to allow the Member to accept expenses for his wife and child would violate the spirit of the one-relative restriction of the gift rule.
It is possible for a staff person to participate in a trip along with the individual’s employing Member, provided that the entity sponsoring the travel provided an unsolicited invitation to the staff person to participate in the trip, the Member reasonably determines that the staff person’s participation would be in connection with the individual’s official duties, and both the Member and staff person seek and obtain the Committee’s approval to accept travel expenses before the trip.
At times a private organization has invited only the spouses of Members to participate in a trip. Participation in such a trip, in the capacity as the spouse of a Member, would be deemed a gift to the Member. However, the gift rule does not include a provision that permits the acceptance of such “spouse only” travel under these circumstances. Instead, as detailed above, the rule allows the acceptance of expenses for spouse travel only when the spouse is accompanying the Member.
Nevertheless, depending on the circumstances involved – including the purpose and itinerary of the trip, and the expenses proposed to be covered – the Committee may consider granting a gift rule waiver to enable a spouse to participate on such a spouse-only trip. For further information on the provision of the gift rule that authorizes the Committee to grant waivers in certain circumstances, see Chapter 2 on gifts. When the Committee has granted a waiver for such spouse travel in the past, it has required that the trip be publicly reported in the same manner that Member travel is reported, (i.e., on a Member Travel Disclosure form filed with the Clerk’s office, and on Schedule VII of the Member’s annual Financial Disclosure Statement). It would also be necessary for the spouse to submit the necessary Private Sponsor Form and Traveler Form in order to receive Committee approval before the trip.
4 As discussed in the summary, travel may never be accepted from a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal. The gift rule provides that the term “registered lobbyist” means “a lobbyist registered under the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act or any successor statute,” and the term “agent of a foreign principal” means “an agent registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.” (House Rule 25, clause 5(g).)
Because travel may not be accepted from an individual who is a registered lobbyist, travel likewise may not be accepted from a lobbying firm. As a general matter, the Committee does not consider a corporation, trade association, labor union, or other entity that retains or employs lobbyists to represent only the interests of the organization or its members to be a “lobbyist” for purposes of the prohibition.
6 In addition, the second night’s stay must have been offered by the private source (i.e., it may not be solicited by the Member or staff person), and the traveler must request the Committee’s approval for the second night’s stay before the trip.
7 As used in the rule, “an institution of higher education” is one within the meaning of section 101 of the Higher Education Act of 1965, that is, an accredited, degree-granting postsecondary institution.
11 In this regard, the rule provides that one may be permitted to accept necessary transportation, “whether or not such transportation occurs within” the four- and seven-day periods established in the rule (House Rule XXV, clause 5(b)(4)(B)).
114 See, e.g., House Comm. on Standards of Official Conduct, Investigation of Financial Transactions participated in and Gifts of Transportation Accepted by Representative Fernand J. St Germain, H. Rep. 100-46, 100th Cong., 1st Sess. 5-6 (1987).
18 The accompaniment provision of the gift rule was amended on January 4, 2005 (see H. Res. 5, 109th Cong., 1st Sess. (151 Cong. Rec. H13 (daily ed. Jan. 4, 2005)). Previously, the gift rule permitted a Member, officer, or employee to be accompanied by a “spouse or child” but not by any other relative.
19 A Member, officer, or employee who wishes to be accompanied on a trip by more than one such individual, or by an individual other than a relative, may personally pay the travel expenses of that individual, or may apply to the Committee for a gift rule waiver. However, the Committee will grant such a waiver only in exceptional circumstances.