Congressional ethics committees must publicly clarify gift rules

Common Cause today sent a letter today to the House and Senate ethics committees, urging them to issue guidelines for Congress and the public clarifying that indirect gifts from lobbyists to Members of Congress are not permitted under the new lobby and ethics reform bill.

The letter came in response to an Oct. 14 story in The Washington Post, which described efforts both inside and outside of Congress to circumvent the gift ban provision in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

According to The Post, Members of Congress attended dinner events with tickets costing $2,500 each that were apparently paid for by lobbyists or their employers. The Post said that the lobbyists bought the tickets from a charity to a fundraising dinner, and then gave the tickets back to the charity to give to specific members of Congress.

“This certainly appears like a violation of the letter and certainly of the declared spirit of the new law,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “The ethics committees need to issue guidelines clarifying that indirect gifts are not permitted.”

In the letter, Edgar noted the House Ethics Committee itself has issued a letter that exhorts Members and staff to “keep in mind that the intent of the House gift rule is to protect the integrity of the House. The House Code of Official Conduct requires House Members and staff to adhere to the spirit as well as to the letter of the Rules of the House. Narrow, technical readings of the House gift rule should be avoided.”

Recent news reports have detailed an unfortunate pattern of “business as usual” on Capitol Hill, despite the new law.

“We urge the committees and the congressional leadership of both parties to send a strong message to Members of Congress and lobbyists that this new law will be enforced and that the way business is done in Washington has indeed changed,” Edgar said.