January 24, 2012; Source: U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ethics | It is presidential campaign season, which means that the upcoming national political conventions will be full of “parties”—not just Republicans and Democrats, but events, dinners, celebrations, and hullabaloos where special interests will wine and dine those convention participants who happen to be members of the House and the Senate.

In order to minimize the kinds of problems that have occurred during past conventions with corporate lobbyists—and nonprofit trade associations—entertaining legislators, the House Ethics Committee has sent its members the first of what looks like a number of memoranda meant to remind them about the law, the House rules, and the concept of ethics in general. Since some of the parties are often cloaked as “charity events,” the rules are important for nonprofits that might think that they are simply attaching their names to gatherings where the presence of the 501(c)(3) in the mix sanitizes the process. It doesn’t.

Here are four important nuggets from the House guidance:

  1. During the dates of the convention, a House member may not participate in an event honoring him or her that is directly paid for by a lobbyist or by a “private entity that retains or employs a registered lobbyist” unless the member happens to be a candidate for president or vice president. Note that “lobbyist” means a registered lobbyist under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, so this might not apply to the multitudes of unregistered Beltway influencers (like non-lobbyist Newt Gingrich working as a consultant for Freddie Mac) who function as all-but-lobbyists. The prohibition applies even if the event organizers call the member “a special guest” instead of an honoree, or if they try to sidestep the rule by honoring the member by title rather than by name. It also applies if organizers offer the member some special ceremonial role or an exclusive speaking role.
  2. While the special events cannot honor a specific member, they can honor a group of members, such as a state’s delegation or a House committee or caucus so long as a specific House member is not named. How small such a group might be isn’t specified in the rules. House members can be identified by name as serving on the host committees for events so long as the host committee list also includes the names of non-members.
  3. Prohibitions against “participation” do not necessarily mean prohibition against “attendance.” The House rule is actually a bit unclear about what participation really means. Members are advised to call the ethics committee to check before acting.
  4. It is also unclear what it means to have an event “directly paid for” by a lobbyist or a group that retains or employs a lobbyist, since many charities and nonprofit trade associations routinely retain lobbyists. The House memo states, “The fact that a private organization received some of its funding for an event taking place during a national convention from a lobbyist or private entity that retains or employs lobbyists, by itself, would not disqualify a member from participating in the organization’s event.” In other words, setting up those convention instant charity events which are funded by multiple sponsors gives House members the “out” for participating and getting feted by name. 

Expect much confusion as the conventions near. We will cover the House Ethics Committee memo on the equally confusing gift rules when that letter is released. —Rick Cohen