Conferences and Town Hall Meetings
- Applicability of House Rule 24 to Events Sponsored by a House Office
Members may participate in conferences and town hall meetings in a variety of ways. They may plan official conferences or town hall meetings that are arranged, promoted, and put on entirely or almost entirely using official allowances.11 Alternatively, they may hold town hall meetings as political events, organized and funded by their campaigns. No official resources, including the frank and official staff time, may be used in support of such political gatherings. Generally, it is up to the Member arranging the event to determine whether a particular meeting is official or political in nature.12 With regard to Member-sponsored events, as a general rule no outside assistance may be accepted. Underlying this guidance is House Rule 24, which as previously discussed prohibits the acceptance of a private subsidy for official House business. This provision applies to all official House business, including events sponsored – that is, organized and conducted – by any House office. Further elaboration on House Rule 24 is provided below and in Chapter 9 on official allowances.
While Members may not “co-sponsor” or hold joint events with private entities, they may cooperate in private events by, for example, speaking, serving as honorary chairs, and even signing letters of invitation on behalf of private groups, provided the identity of the actual host is made clear. The rules concerning Member involvement in events sponsored by outside organizations are discussed in the next section.
With regard to events sponsored by a House office, the effect of House Rule 24 is generally to prohibit House Members and staff from accepting, in connection with any such event, any financial support, goods, or in-kind services having monetary value from any private individual or organization. Accordingly, an event sponsored by a House office:
- May not include a meal or any other refreshments that are paid for by a private organization or individual;
- May not be planned or organized, in whole or in part, by a private organization or individual; and
- May not take place on private property unless the sponsoring office pays fair value for its use, or unless one of the limited exceptions described below applies.
The rule applies to House office-sponsored events that take place in Washington, D.C., as well as those that take place in a Member’s congressional district or elsewhere. The intent of the rule is that events sponsored by a House office will be scheduled, organized, and conducted by House Members and staff, using House funds and resources (with limited exceptions that are described in this section). Of course, the funds and resources of Member offices and of committees must be used consistent with the rules set forth in, respectively, the Members’ Handbook and the Committees’ Handbook issued by the Committee on House Administration. When any question arises as to whether a proposed use of Member or committee allowances would be permissible, the Committee on House Administration should be contacted for guidance. There are several additional points Members and staff should bear in mind regarding House Rule 24 as they consider holding conferences, meetings, briefings, or other events, as follows.
In-Kind Support From Federal, State, or Local Governmental Entities. The rule prohibits only the private subsidy of official House business. Accordingly, as a general matter, Members and staff may accept any kind of in-kind support for office-sponsored events that a federal, state, or local governmental entity offers to provide.13 This includes support from public colleges and universities.
For example, if a community college in a Member’s district offers to provide use of its auditorium for the Member’s town hall meeting without charge, the offer may be accepted. In addition, when a House office is sponsoring an event on a particular subject – such as paying for college costs, retirement planning, or public health issues – government agencies with responsibilities in that area may offer to provide various kinds of assistance. Such assistance may also be accepted.
Appearance of Private Organizations and Individuals as Guests at an Official Event. House offices sometimes plan to have a representative of a private organization or other individual appear and make a presentation at an official event. For example, at a town hall meeting on home buying, the sponsoring House office may wish to have presentations from government officials whose agencies provide assistance for home purchasing and representatives of private businesses in that field. Such presentations at an event sponsored by a House office, as well as the distribution of appropriate informational materials by such private organizations, do not violate House Rule 24. Indeed, events such as a government procurement fair sponsored by a Member’s office inherently involve private businesses setting up booths and providing information to participants.
However, when a private organization will be making a presentation at an official event, it should be clearly understood that the organization is merely a guest of the sponsoring office, and the office retains full control over the program for the event. It should also be clearly understood that the purpose of that organization’s presence is limited to providing information on a congressionally-related subject. Thus, private businesses that appear at an official event are not authorized to enter into any commercial transactions or sign up clients while there, and membership organizations are not authorized to sign up new members or solicit funds. Any printed materials that a private organization distributes at an official event must comply with these same limitations. In addition, any reference to such an organization that is made in materials that the congressional office prints to promote the event (such as a mailing or a leaflet) must comply with the rules of the Committee on House Administration and the Franking Commission.
A private organization or individual may incur travel expenses in attending an event sponsored by a House office. Consistent with the above guidance, there is no violation of House Rule 24 if the invited organizations or individuals pay their own travel expenses to the event, or arrange – without any involvement of House Members or staff – for others to pay their travel expenses. In addition, a Member may use campaign funds to pay such travel expenses. See Chapter 4 on campaign activity.
Benefits That a Private Organization Routinely Offers Without Charge. A Member does not violate House Rule 24 by accepting from a private organization, for an official event, a benefit that the organization routinely offers without charge to similarly situated persons. For example, if a private organization that owns a meeting room routinely makes that room available without charge to any nonprofit or governmental entity that wants to use it, a House office does not violate the rule in using that room without charge.14 Before accepting a benefit under this exception, a House office should carefully verify (if possible, in writing) that the policy of the particular private organization is indeed routinely to offer that benefit without charge.
As another example, Members sometimes wish to sponsor a “health fair” or similar event in their congressional district where they offer, for example, blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes screening tests. In some communities, hospitals or other organizations may routinely offer such tests without charge at a range of community events. A Member may, consistent with the rule, allow such an organization to provide such free tests at a health fair sponsored by the Member’s congressional office. However, this is the only circumstance in which a private organization may provide a health test or screening at such an event. If an organization does not have a clearly established policy of routinely offering free tests at community events – including events sponsored by persons other than a Member – then a Member may not accept the organization’s offer to provide free testing at the Member’s event.
Charging a Registration Fee to Event Participants. A House office may, consistent with House Rule 24, charge a registration fee to attendees at an event it is sponsoring for the purpose of defraying the costs of food, beverages, and printed materials that are provided to the attendees.15 These are the only expenses that may be covered by the registration fee. The Committee’s guidance should be sought before charging a registration fee to cover other types of expenses.
When an office wishes to defray those costs in this manner, the registration fee must be calculated to cover those costs without generating a surplus, and the Member should establish a temporary, non-interest-bearing account to hold the fees collected. If a surplus is generated inadvertently, the excess funds must be either refunded on a prorata basis to the participants, or donated to charity. Instead of establishing an account, a Member may direct the participants to send the fee directly to the entity that will be providing the food and beverages, but the fees should not be collected by any private third party.
If a Member holds such an event on a regular basis, the Member may maintain a bank account with just enough funds from any surplus to cover bank charges and fees. Doing so would avoid the multiple costs that would be incurred in closing and re-opening accounts. However, maintenance of such an account at more than a minimum level would be impermissible. Thus, any surplus from an event beyond that necessary to keep the account open should be promptly refunded or donated to charity.
With the availability of these alternatives for the sponsorship of events, it is very important that Members decide early in the planning process what the nature of the event will be, and that they and their staff follow the rules applicable to the chosen alternative. The Standards Committee’s staff is available to consult with Members and staff from the start of their planning process for the purpose of advising on permissible activities under the rules.
11 The use of funds from a Member’s principal campaign in support of an official event is discussed in Chapter 4.
12 See Advisory Opinion No. 6, supra note 2.
13 See Advisory Opinion No. 6, supra note 9.
14 The policy underlying this principle is that “the occasional use of privately owned meeting space where no other appropriate public accommodations are reasonably available for meeting constituents does not fall within the proscriptions of [House Rule 24].” Advisory Opinion No. 6, supra note 9. This policy applies primarily when a Member wishes to have an event for constituents who live in a remote and lightly populated area of the congressional district.
15 House Select Comm. on Ethics, Final Report, H. Rep. 95-1837, 95th Cong., 2d Sess., at 25 (1979).