Gifts Given on the Basis of Personal Friendship
A Member, officer, or employee may accept any gift that is given by an individual on the basis of personal friendship, unless the official has reason to believe that, under the circumstances, the gift was provided because of his or her official position with the House, and not because of the personal friendship (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(3)(D)). However, a gift exceeding $250 in value – including, for example, a trip – may not be accepted on the basis of personal friendship unless the Standards Committee issues a written determination that the personal friendship provision applies (House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(5)).
This provision of the gift rule further states that in determining whether a gift is provided on the basis of personal friendship, a Member or staff person must consider the circumstances under which the gift was offered, such as (1) the history of the official’s relationship with the donor, including any previous exchange of gifts, (2) whether, to the official’s knowledge, the donor personally paid for the gift, or whether the donor sought a tax deduction or business reimbursement for it, and (3) whether, to the official’s knowledge, the donor at the same time gave the same or similar gifts to other Members or staff.
When the offeror is a lobbyist or someone else who has interests before Congress, Members, officers, and employees have the most reason to be concerned about whether a gift is offered for a reason other than personal friendship. In that circumstance, the criteria set forth in the rule are especially helpful. For example, if the gift was paid for by a business or will be charged to a firm or corporate credit card – as opposed to being paid for out of the offeror’s own pocket – it is likely that the gift is based on business concerns, rather than personal friendship.27 Likewise, if, in a relationship, all of the gifts have gone to the Member or staff person, and there has not been reciprocal gift giving, it is likely that the gifts have a business purpose. Thus, when a Member or staff person is offered a gift by a lobbyist or someone else who has interests before Congress and either of these circumstances is present (i.e., the gift is not paid for personally, or there has not been reciprocal gift-giving), the official should not accept the gift on the basis of the personal friendship provision. Unless the gift is acceptable under another provision of the gift rule, the Member or staff person should either decline the gift or pay for it personally.
Example 12. A Member’s former college roommate, who is also a lobbyist, offers to take the Member to a baseball game. The college roommate had paid for the Member’s ticket personally, and the Member’s family and the roommate’s family often exchange presents during the holidays. The roommate does not contact the Member on official matters. The Member may accept the ticket.
Example 13. Through her House work over the years, a committee staff person has come to know a lobbyist. The staff person often sees the lobbyist at officially-related events, but they do not see each other socially or exchange gifts. The lobbyist offers to take the staff person to dinner at the lobbyist’s expense. The staffer may not accept the dinner. However, the staff person may accompany the lobbyist to the restaurant and pay for her own meal and drinks.
As noted above, when a Member, officer, or employee wishes to accept a gift on the basis of the personal friendship provision, and the value of the gift exceeds $250, the official must first obtain the written approval of the Standards Committee. This requirement may apply when, for example, one wishes to accept a friend’s invitation to go on a vacation trip.28
The Standards Committee will grant written approval for a personal friendship gift exceeding $250 in value only in response to a written request. The request should identify the donor and briefly describe the donor’s line of work and any interests before Congress, the history of the relationship, and the nature of the gift. The request should also state whether the donor will be paying for the gift personally. Under Committee Rule 3(i), the Committee keeps confidential any such request and the Committee’s response. (Indeed, this confidentiality requirement applies to any advisory opinion request made by a Member, officer, or employee and the response thereto.) However, as noted below in the section on “Gift Disclosure,” Members and officers, as well as employees who are required to file a Financial Disclosure Statement, will have to disclose any gift exceeding $335 in value on their statement, unless the Committee grants a waiver of the reporting requirement.