The House Gift Rule
Below is a condensed version of this topic; for complete guidance please refer to the House Ethics Manual, Chapter 2 on gifts.
What is a Gift?
Who Is Subject to the Gift Rule?
Recipient of a Gift
The House gift rule provides that a Member, officer, or employee may not knowingly accept any gift except as provided in the rule. The rule is comprehensive, i.e., a House Member or staff person may not accept anything of value from anyone – whether in one’s personal life or one’s official life – unless acceptance is allowed under one of the rule’s provisions.
As is detailed below, the rule includes one general provision on acceptable gifts, and 23 provisions that describe additional, specific kinds of gifts that may be accepted.
- The general gift rule provision states that a Member, officer, or employee may not accept a gift from a registered lobbyist, agent or a foreign principal, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals. Definitions of the terms registered lobbyist and agent of a foreign principal are provided in the section "Definitions of Registered Lobbyist and Agent of a Foreign Principal." 22
- The general provision goes on to state that a Member, officer, or employee may accept from any other source virtually any gift valued below $50, with a limitation of less than $100 in gifts from any single source in a calendar year. Gifts having a value of less than $10 do not count toward the annual limit.
- The other 23 categories of acceptable gifts are descriptive categories, not tied to any specific dollar figure. Among those categories are, for example, informational materials, commemorative items, and free attendance at certain kinds of events.
The rule defines the term “gift” in an extremely broad manner:
. . . a gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value. [House Rule 25, clause 5(a)(2)(A).]
This provision goes on to state,
The term includes gifts of services, training, transportation, lodging, and meals, whether provided in kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred.
Accordingly, when a Member, officer, or employee is offered a tangible item, a service, or anything else, he or she must first determine whether the item has monetary value. If it does, then the individual may accept it only in accordance with provisions of the gift rule. This is so even if the donor obtained the gift without charge.
Example 3. A Member has been invited to play golf by an acquaintance who belongs to a country club, and under the rules of the club, the guest of a club member plays without any fee. Nevertheless, the Member’s use of the course would be deemed a gift to the Member from his host, having a value of the amount that the country club generally charges for a round of golf.
As a general matter, mere attendance at an event such as a meeting or a briefing will not be deemed to have monetary value, unless the sponsoring organization charges an admission fee for the event. However, any food or refreshments served at the event will have monetary value and may be accepted only pursuant to one of the provisions of the gift rule. Accordingly, there may be circumstances in which a Member may attend an event, but the Member would be required to decline or to pay for a meal that is served at the event.
As detailed below, the restrictions of the gift rule do not apply to “[a]nything for which the [official] pays the market value” (House Rule XXV, clause 5(a)(3)(A)). Accordingly, there can be an improper gift to a Member, officer, or employee when, for example, he or she is sold property at less than market value, or receives more than market value in selling property. There can also be an improper gift when a Member or staff person is given a loan at a below-market interest rate, or, in the context of outside employment, when a Member, officer, or employee is compensated in an amount greater than the value of the services rendered.
In General. The rule by its terms applies to all Members, Delegates, officers, and employees of the House, and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico23 Under clauses 4 and 18(a) of House Rule XXIII, the term “officer or employee” means any individual whose compensation is disbursed by the Chief Administrative Officer of the House. In addition, under clause 18(b) of House Rule XXIII, individuals whose services are compensated by the House pursuant to a consultant contract are subject to the gift rule. As a general rule, a newly elected House Member becomes subject to the House rules when his or her pay and allowances begin: on January 3 for those elected in a regular election, and the day following a special election for those elected to fill a vacant seat.24
The gift rule applies with full force to every employee of the House – employees in district offices as well as those in the Washington office; and permanent employees as well as non-permanent employees, including part-time employees, paid interns, and employees who are on Leave Without Pay status.
As a general matter, the gift rule does not by its terms apply to an individual who serves in a House office without being paid by the House, i.e., a volunteer, fellow, or unpaid intern. However, the Ethics Committee strongly advises that each office using the services of such an individual require that he or she adhere to all of the rules applicable to House employees, including the gift rule.
As to executive branch fellows, the Ethics Committee understands that they continue to be bound by the gift and travel rules of their employing agency. Executive branch employees who are detailed to a House committee under 2 U.S.C. § 72a(f) should consult with both their Designated Agency Ethics Official and the Ethics Committee on the rules applicable to them.
Applicability to Spouses, Family Members, and Others. Under certain circumstances, a gift to a family member of a Member, officer, or employee – or, for that matter, any other individual – will be deemed a gift to the official, and hence will be subject to the restrictions of the gift rule. Under clause 5(a)(2)(B)(i) of House Rule XXV, a gift to a family member or another individual will be deemed to be a gift to the official when two circumstances are present:
- The gift was given with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Member or staff person; and
- The Member or staff person has “reason to believe the gift was given because of his official position” with the House.
Example 4. A Member is throwing a graduation party for her daughter. A lobbyist who does not know the Member’s daughter offers to buy the daughter a television. The television would be considered a gift to the Member and must be declined.
Example 5. A lawyer offers tickets to a sporting event to a Member without charge. The Member does not want the tickets, and he suggests instead that the lawyer give them to a friend of the Member. In these circumstances, a gift of the tickets to the Member’s friend would be deemed a gift to the Member himself and would be permissible only if the Member himself could accept the tickets under the gift rule.
However, a different rule (House Rule XXV, clause 5(a)(2)(B)(ii)) applies when a meal is provided to a Member or staff person and his or her spouse at the same time and place. Under this provision, when a meal is provided to a Member or staff member and his or her spouse or dependent at the same time and place, only the value of the meal provided to the Member or staff member is treated as a gift and counts against the dollar limitations of this provision.
Additionally, the statutory limitations on accepting certain gifts from a foreign government or an international organization are also applicable to a spouse or dependent of a Member or employee.
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 XXV, 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 XXIV, clause 1 to 3) generally prohibits Members and staff from accepting private subsidy for official House business, including events sponsored by a Member, a committee or leadership office, a caucus, or any other House office.
On the other hand, when a House office, for example, fields a sports team in 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 XXIII, 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.
22 Other gifts from lobbyists and agents of a foreign principal that are expressly prohibited by the gift rule are discussed below in the section “Other Expressly Prohibited Lobbyist Gifts.”
23 For the sake of convenience, the term “Member” as used hereafter in this publication refers to House Members, the Delegates to the House, and the Resident Commissioner.
24 While a newly elected House Member generally is not subject to the gift rule, a Member-elect is subject to the statutory ethics provisions – e.g., bribery, illegal gratuity. See 18 U.S.C. § 201(a). For further information on these provisions is provided later in this chapter.
25 It is important to bear in mind that a gift from an individual who is employed by or similarly affiliated with any organization is deemed to be a gift from both that individual and the affiliated organization, as discussed in the text above.
26 House Rule 23, cl. 2.