Good Counsel: Smart Giving
Use federal gift and ethics rules strategically to energize your lobbying efforts.
Interacting with federal officials is a central component of most government affairs strategies. Whether you want to invite an official to your annual meeting or present an award, these interactions may trigger federal executive branch and congressional gift rules. These restrictions apply regardless of whether the individual or the organization making the gift is registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Fortunately, the federal gift rules offer opportunities for providing things of value to public officials in ways that can support your organization’s advocacy efforts. Here are some examples.
House and Senate rules. Members of Congress and staffers may attend a wide range of functions hosted by private organizations offering some level of food, beverages, and entertainment. For example, light food such as bagels, pastries, and coffee can be provided at working meetings. Drinks and “nonmeal” food (such as appetizers) can be offered at small events and stand-up receptions. A sit-down meal and entertainment can be provided at a gathering open to industry members or others, as long as more than 25 people other than lawmakers and staffers are expected to attend. Congressional members and staffers can also attend a meal with a constituent organization, regardless of the number of attendees, if the event is regularly scheduled (such as a DC fly-in).
In addition, you can invite congressional members and staffers to visit your facilities, speak at conferences, and give them awards. Informational materials about your issues or industry can also be sent to a lawmaker’s office.
Federal employee ethics rules. The Office of Government Ethics has separate gift rules that apply to all executive branch officials. For the most part, these rules have flexibilities similar to the House and Senate rules. OGE’s rules were even amended in 2017 to allow executive officials to accept informational materials.
Rules for presidential appointees. President Trump established separate rules that restrict administration appointees from accepting gifts from lobbyists and lobbying organizations. While more restrictive than the OGE rules, they permit appointees to accept invitations to speak at meetings and consume food and beverages at those events. An appointee can also seek an ethics waiver, especially when her role at the event closely relates to her government duties.
If you take the time to understand the applicable gift rules and plan ahead, there are many opportunities for engagement with federal officials to advance your organization’s issues and causes. Also be sure to check state and local rules applicable to nonfederal activities.