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Congressional Gift Giving: No to Caviar But Yes to Campaign Contributions

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind
Daily Ticker

December means holiday parties, festive decorations and and gift giving. But not in Washington.

Members of the U.S. House and Senate are not allowed to receive any gift worth more than $50. According to House rule 25 and Senate rule 35, the United States legislative body must report any gift worth more than $10 and cannot accept any gift (including food) worth more than $50 from the public. Members are forbidden to accept any gift associated with a lobbying group.

Attending a lobbyist holiday party is frowned upon too. According to rule 25, "An event may not be merely for the personal pleasure or entertainment of the Member or staff person."

Eating a lobbyist's food also has repercussions.

"Any food or refreshments served at the event will have monetary value and may be accepted only pursuant to one of the provisions of the gift rule. Accordingly, there may be circumstances in which a Member may attend an event, but the Member would be required to decline or to pay for a meal that is served at the event," according to the congressional ethics committee.

If the amount of alcohol and food consumed at a party is worth more than $50 the member of congress must insist on reimbursing the party's host.

Food restrictions are often referred to as the "toothpick rules" -- anything that can fit on a toothpick is generally allowed to eat. Coffee, bagels, doughnuts, pastries, juices, and most hors d'oeuvres are acceptable treats. Full meals are strictly forbidden, even if those meals consist only of inexpensive foods like hotdogs and chili.

These rules may seem silly and unnecessary but Lisa Rosenberg of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation says they're important for various reasons. Rosenberg doesn't have the kind of budget that a lobbyist for a large corporation might, so the gift rules level the Congressional playing field for her. Rosenberg even believes that the rules should include a ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists. Campaign contributions are not considered gifts by the congressional ethics committee.

"I can't sit down and take a staffer to lunch," Rosenberg tells The Daily Ticker, "but if I had a PAC or a lot of wealthy friends I could take a staff member to lunch and hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions."

She explains that campaign contributions -- not holiday parties -- violate a member's code of ethics.

"In my opinion, most members of Congress can't be bought for the price of a lunch but maybe they can be swayed by a large campaign contribution," she says.

According to OpenSecrets, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) received over $50,000 in campaign funding from registered AT&T lobbyists and $202,500 from agribusiness PACs between 2011 and 2012. During that same period, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) received $30,000 in campaign funding from MGM Resorts International lobbyists and $93,000 from PACs run by the healthcare industry.

"We'd like to get disclosure of who lobbyists are meeting with and what they're talking about," says Rosenberg. "Right now the public doesn't have any idea of who's talking to whom and what they're asking for. We think that would certainly be a step in the right direction."