Gifts Valued at Less Than $50
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, other than cash or cash equivalent, having a value of less than $50, provided that the source of the gift is not a registered lobbyist, foreign agent, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals. The cumulative value of gifts that may be accepted from any one source in a calendar year must be less than $100. Gifts having a value of less than $10 do not count toward the annual limit. While the rule does not require Members and staff to maintain formal records of the gifts accepted under this provision, the rule does require that Members and staff make a good faith effort to comply with its terms (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(1)(B)).
The figures of $50, $100, and $10 are actually dollar limits of, respectively, $49.99, $99.99, and $9.99. Gifts of “cash or cash equivalent” are not acceptable under this provision. Hence, under this provision, one may not accept a gift of cash or, for example, a check, use of a credit card, or a security, even if the gift would be within the stated dollar limitations. The Standards Committee has determined that gift cards which are redeemable for purchases at a retail establishment or restaurant are the equivalent of cash and therefore may not be accepted under the gift rule.
Definitions of Registered Lobbyist and Agent of a Foreign Principal. The gift rule defines the term “registered lobbyist” as “a lobbyist registered under the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act or any successor statute,” and the term “agent of a foreign principal” as “an agent registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act” (House Rule 25, clause 5(g)).
With regard to registered lobbyists, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (Pub. L. 104-65) is a successor statute to the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act. The Lobbying Disclosure Act in turn defines the term “lobbyist” to mean “any individual” who engages in certain activities set forth in the act. 2 U.S.C. § 1602(10). Accordingly, the Committee interprets the prohibitions on registered lobbyists that are set forth in the gift rule to apply to the individuals who are registered as lobbyists under that Act, as well as to lobbying firms.
Application of the Rule in Specific Circumstances
In accepting any gift under the general gift rule provision, a Member, officer, or employee must comply with the following interpretative rules:
No “Buydowns.” A Member or staff person may not “buy down” the value of a gift in order to bring it within the dollar limitations of the provision.
Example 6. A staff member taken to a restaurant by a local businessman may not order an expensive meal and simply pay his host the amount by which the bill for his food and beverages exceeds $49.99. If the bill for his food and beverages exceeds $49.99, he must pay the entire bill himself.
Example 7. A Member is offered a skybox ticket to a baseball game valued at $60. The Member may not accept the ticket simply by paying the offeror $11. If the Member wishes to accept the ticket, he must pay the offeror $60.
Example 8. During the year, a staff member has accepted meals and other gifts from a corporation that does not retain or employ lobbyists or registered foreign agents, each of which had a value of $10 or more, and the cumulative value of which is $85. The staff member may not then accept a meal having a value of $20 from that corporation simply by paying the corporation $6. Instead, he must either decline the meal or personally pay its cost in full.
However, when an individual is offered a gift with a value of $50 or more that is naturally divisible – such as multiple tickets to an event, or bottles of wine – the individual may accept one or more items that total less than $50 in value and either pay market value for or decline the others.
Example 9. A staff person is offered four tickets to a baseball game, each having a value of $15. The staff person may accept three of the tickets, but he must either decline or pay the full price of the fourth ticket.
The “Source” of a Gift. A gift received from an individual affiliated with an organization counts against the annual gift limitation of both the individual and the organization.
Example 10. A committee staff person accepts a lunch valued at $15 from a representative of a nonprofit organization that does not retain or employ lobbyists or registered foreign agents. Both the representative and the organization are deemed to be the “source” of the lunch, and the annual gift limit of both for that staff person will be reduced accordingly.
“Simultaneous Gifts.” Generally, when multiple items, each individually worth less than $50, are offered simultaneously to any individual, the “gift” being offered is deemed to be the aggregate of all the items.
Example 11. A corporation that does not retain or employ lobbyists or registered foreign agents sends a Member a box of samples of its products. The box includes 6 products, each of which has a value of about $10.00. The box cannot be accepted under this provision, as its total value exceeds the per-gift limit of less than $50.
Valuation of Gifts. Under the gift rule, items are generally valued at their retail, rather than wholesale, price. The lowest price at which an item is available to the public may be used. However, for the purpose of simplicity, tax that would be imposed on the sale of the item, as well as gratuities, are excluded in determining the value of any gift.
For further information on the valuation of gifts – including tickets to sporting events and shows – see the section below entitled “Pay Market Value for the Gift.”
Recipient of a Gift. At times a question may arise as to who is the recipient of a gift: a Member or individual members of his or her staff. As a general matter, this question is to be decided according to the expressed intent of the donor. Thus, for example, when an individual delivers several tickets to a sporting event to an office and indicates that the tickets are for use by the staff, the tickets are treated as a gift to each individual staff person who uses them, rather than as a single gift to the Member. If, however, the donor indicates that the tickets are for the Member’s use, all of the tickets will be treated as a gift to the Member.
Another example concerns the delivery of perishable food, such as pizza, to a House office for consumption by staff. In such an instance, the gift of food sent to a House office is deemed to be a gift to the individual recipients, and not to the employing Member. Thus, when a private source sends perishable food to a House office for staff, each staff member may accept food having a value of up to $49.99, subject to the following restrictions and limitations –
- If the source of the gift of food is a registered lobbyist, agent of a foreign principal, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals, the food may not be accepted. Because it is often a lobbyist or client of a lobbyist that is the source of the food being sent to a House office, Members and staff should exercise caution before accepting the food. Even if the food is from a permissible source, the following limitations must be observed.
- Each staff member must comply with the annual gift limitation of less than $100 from any source in a calendar year. Any gift having a value of less than $10 does not count against the annual limitation. In order to comply in good faith with the dollar limitation on gifts, a staff member who is offered such a gift of food must learn both the identity of the donor and the dollar value of the food provided.25
- While, as noted above, the gift rule provides that a gift valued at less than $10 is generally acceptable, the Committee has long advised that to accept such a gift from one source on a repetitive basis is contrary to the spirit of the gift rule, and hence is not permissible under the House Code of Official Conduct.26 Accordingly, it would be impermissible for a staff member to accept gifts of perishable food, even if valued at less than $10 each, from any one source on a repetitive basis.
- The Committee has also long advised that a gift of food sent to a House office for staff, even if within the dollar limits of the gift rule, must be refused if the person offering it has a direct interest in the particular legislation or other official business on which staff is working at the time. In addition to possibly violating the gift rule restriction on accepting lobbyist gifts, as discussed above, the gift of food may also be considered an improper gratuity or inducement to take a particular action.
- While the gift rule sets out the categories of gifts that a Member of staff person may accept if offered, Members and staff are generally prohibited from soliciting gifts. Accordingly, a Member or a staff person may never request or suggest that anyone send a gift of food to a House office.
Members and staff should also note that this gift rule provision (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(1)(B)) does not affect the prohibition against accepting food or beverages from any private organization or individual for any event sponsored by a House office, such as a meeting, a conference, or a briefing. A separate rule (House Rule 24, clause 1 to 3) generally prohibits Members and staff from accepting private subsidy for official House business, including events sponsored by a Member, committee or leadership office, a caucus, or any other House office
On the other hand, when a House office fields a sports team in, for example, a local softball league or joins with others in fielding a team, and an outsider offers to sponsor the team by providing caps, T-shirts, or other benefits to team members, a different application of the gift rule applies. In such a case, the benefits provided to the staff members are treated as one gift to the employing Member, valued at their total fair market retail value. Any such gift is acceptable only if its total value is less than $50 (and the gift is not from a lobbyist or entity that employs a lobbyist), and the Member may not accept gifts from that source having a value of $100 or more in a calendar year. In addition, with regard to sponsorship of a House office team, an offer of an outsider to pay any league entry fee may not be accepted.
Adhering to the Spirit of the Rule. Under the House Code of Official Conduct, Members and staff must adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the Rules of the House (House Rule 23, clause 2). To repeatedly accept gifts valued at under $10 from a source would violate the spirit of the gift rule and hence be impermissible.
Relationship of the General Provision on Acceptable Gifts to the Specific Provisions
When a gift satisfies each of the requirements of any of the specific provisions of the gift rule on acceptable gifts – for example, a book under the “informational materials” provision (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(3)(I)) – the gift may be accepted even if its value is $50 or more. Furthermore, in that circumstance, the value of the gift does not count against the donor’s annual gift limitation of less than $100.
In addition, the gift rule does not restrict Members and staff from accepting, even when the donor is a registered lobbyist, agent of a foreign principal, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals, gifts that fall within one of the specific gift rule provisions (often referred to as the “exceptions” to the rule) or general waivers the Standards Committee has issued. Those specific provisions are discussed below.