Scrooge visits Congress: Looking at the gift rule

The 2012 Capitol Christmas Tree is seen after U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) lit it up with Ryan Shuster, a senior at Discovery Canyon Campus in Colorado Spring, Colorado, December 4, 2012 at the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Scott Talbott is chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable

Lisa Rosenberg is a lobbyist with the Sunlight Foundation.

Tis the season. For House Rule 25, clause 5.

The rule says, “Members and staff not may not knowingly accept any gift except as provided in the gift rule.”

The House and Senate have pretty much the same rule. A lobbyist can only give a gift if it’s worth less than $10. Lobbyists can never treat a member of Congress or staffer to a meal. If a lobbyist is throwing a holiday party staffers and members can only go if the general public is invited.

But there can’t be any fancy food. The rules specifically ban caviar.

Scott Talbott is chief lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable. He has to go over party menus himself.

“It takes a little bit of the holiday spirit off when the meeting planner comes in and says oh, I’ve got a great menu planned and I sit there with a pen and I go no, no, change the crab to chicken," he says.

This leads us to the dreaded toothpick rule: Everybody has to stand and nibble away at bite sized bits of food.

“If you’re a member of congress you can stand up and eat bad cheese that’s on a toothpick and maybe have a sip of bad wine," says Lisa Rosenberg, a lobbyist for the Sunlight Foundation. "But you’d better not sit down and have a full meal or else you’ll be violating the gift rules."

And what do you do if you receive a gift that breaks the rules? What if it’s something perishable, like a fruit basket? The ethics committee elves thought of that.

The rule states: “For perishable items, i.e. flowers or food, donate the items to charity, or destroy them.”

Lisa Rosenberg, of the Sunlight Foundation, says that yes, some of the gift rules seem ridiculous. But they do serve a purpose; and she’d actually like them to be strengthened to cover much more than fruit baskets and caviar.

“They are focusing on the very small gifts," she adds, "and missing the huge campaign contributions.”

 Rosenberg would like to see limits on how much money lobbyists can raise for a member of Congress. She thinks that would be a perfect New Year’s resolution for Capitol Hill.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Scott Talbott is chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable

Lisa Rosenberg is a lobbyist with the Sunlight Foundation.

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