Unofficial Office Accounts
House Rule 24 prohibits “unofficial office accounts.” Accordingly, outside private donations, funds, or in-kind goods or services may not be used to support the activities of, or pay the expenses of, a congressional office. Only appropriated funds or Members’ personal funds may be used for this purpose9 House Rule 24 has been in effect since 1977. Congress codified this rule into law governing both Chambers as part of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, 1991.10 Under federal law and House rules, however, funds from a Member’s principal campaign committee may be used to pay for certain congressional office expenses. See Chapter 4 on campaign activity for further information.
The House Commission on Administrative Review (95th Congress) proposed House Rule 24 as a “wall” between private funds and official allowances. The House adopted most of the Commission’s recommendations on March 2, 1977, as revisions to the House Rules of Conduct.11 The Commission explained the requirement that official expenses of a Member be paid exclusively from official, appropriated funds as follows:
The Commission strongly believes that private funds should be used only for politically related purposes. Official allowances should reflect the necessary cost of official expenses. Increasing official allowances . . . to eliminate reliance on private sources represents a small cost to the public for the benefits to be derived. To suggest otherwise would be to accept or condone the continuation of the present system which, at the very least, allows for the appearance of impropriety, and, at worst, creates a climate for potential “influence peddling” through private financing of the official expenses of Members of Congress.12
Several rules in addition to House Rule 24 implement the Commission’s recommendation that private financing of official expenses be eliminated. House Rule 23, clause 7, requires that a Member treat all all proceeds from testimonial dinners or other fund-raising events as campaign contributions.13 House Rule 23, clause 6(c), provides that campaign funds may be used only for “bona fide campaign or political purposes.” As a general matter, these provisions mandate that private funds be used only to support private or political, and not official, activities.
No specific definition of bona fide campaign or political purposes exists in the rules or legislative history of the provision. What would be an official, as opposed to a campaign, expense depends on the particular facts of the situation.14 During floor debate on adoption of the rule, it was noted, for example, that travel to a Member’s home district might be considered a political expense for which private campaign funds could be used if the purpose of the trip was political.15 Similarly, the expense of taking certain individuals to dinner, if it is determined to be a political meeting rather than one relating to official duties, could be paid from campaign accounts.16
Members often have discretion in determining whether an event will be “political” or “official,” with the following caveat: “[The] committee is of the opinion that once the Member makes his determination, he is bound by it. A single event cannot, for the purpose of the House rules, be treated as both political and official.”17 Therefore, in Advisory Opinion No. 6 the Standards Committee permitted a Member to designate a town meeting in areas newly added to his district as either a political (campaign) event or official (representational) one. But, by sending announcements of the meeting under the frank (which can be used only in the conduct of official business), the Member defined the event as official and, thus, could not use campaign or other private funds to conduct, promote, or advertise it without violating House Rule 24 or House Rule 23, clause 6(c).18 See Chapter 10 on official and outside organizations for the rules on hosting conferences and town hall meetings.
The legislative history of the unofficial office account rule indicates that the prohibition applies to accounts maintained by third parties for a Member’s benefit, even if they are not maintained for the Member’s direct use. The prohibition extends to any “process whereby funds are received or expended” regardless of whether an actual account or repository is maintained.19 In an interpretation of the unofficial office account prohibition, the House Select Committee on Ethics of the 95th Congress found the private, in-kind contribution of goods or services for official purposes to be banned under House Rule 24.20 The Select Committee found, however, that the following would not violate House Rule 24:
- Services provided by units of federal, state, or local government;
- The occasional use of privately owned space to meet with constituents, when no public accommodations are reasonably available; and
- Intern or volunteer programs in a Member’s office that are primarily of educational benefit to the intern, as opposed to primarily benefiting the Member or office, and that do not give undue advantage to special interest groups. However, Members and their staffs may not personally raise, receive, or disburse any private contributions for intern programs associated with their office.21
Note that while Members may accept the services of other units of government for official events without violating House Rule 24, they may not conversely use official congressional resources to do the work of other entities, even other public entities.
Members and staffers are sometimes offered scholarships to participate in study programs that will assist them in the performance of their official duties. The Standards Committee has determined that accepting tuition, room, and board expenses to attend such a program does not violate House Rule 24, provided that the following criteria are met:
The scholarship payments must be made from a sponsoring accredited educational institution of higher learning;
- The program must be primarily of educational benefit to the participants;
- Scholarship assistance may not be limited to congressional participants, but must be available to other, similarly situated individuals;
- The House employee’s participation may not in any way give undue advantage to special interest groups or others with a direct interest in legislation; and
- Members and employees may not personally raise, receive, or disburse contributions to support the program.
The Final Report of the Select Committee also notes that House Rule 24 “is not intended in any way to restrict the Member’s use of his personal funds.”22 This principle was reiterated in the statutory codification of House Rule 24.23 Thus, for example, Members may establish petty cash funds out of their personal funds to pay for miscellaneous office expenses.24
Example 5. Member E would like to decorate his House office in a modern style of furniture not available from Office Furnishings. E may not accept the offer of a furniture store to supply his office with free furniture. E may purchase the furniture of his choice with his own money.
Example 6. The local cable television company in Member F’s district offers her free cable service in her office so that her district staff may monitor events on the House floor. F may not accept the offer.
10 See 2 U.S.C. § 59e(d).
12 House Comm. on Admin. Review, Financial Ethics, H. Doc. 95-73, 95th Cong., 1st Sess. 18 (1977).
14 See 123 Cong. Rec. 5900 (Mar. 2, 1977) (Statement of Rep. Frenzel).
16 Id. at 5908 (colloquy between Reps. Evans and Bauman).
20 House Select Comm. on Ethics, Advisory Opinion No. 6 (May 9, 1977), reprinted in Final Report of the Select Committee on Ethics, H. Rep. 95-1837, 95th Cong., 2d Sess. app. at 64-66 (1979) (hereinafter “Final Report”), and in the appendices to this Manual.