New rules adopted by the House of Representatives and Senate impose limitations on the extent to which individuals and organizations may make, and Members of Congress and their staff may accept, gifts from private sources. In addition, criminal and civil penalties now apply to violations of these gift rules. Members of Congress and their staffs are prohibited from accepting gifts unless one of the various specific exceptions to the prohibition applies, and the term “gift” is defined very broadly to include virtually all items of value, services, payment for transportation, lodging, or meals. Anytime something of value is offered to a Member of Congress and their staffs, the donor should first confirm that one of the recognized exceptions to the general gift prohibition applies.
In general gifts must have a value of less than $50, and the value of all gifts in a calendar year must be less than $100 (but excluding from such aggregate computation any gifts with a value of less than $10.) This $50 limit applies to the value of meals provided to a Member of Congress, or to the value of tickets to sporting or other entertainment events. In addition, the foregoing limits do not apply to gifts by individuals who are registered as federal lobbyists and organizations that employ registered federal lobbyists. Such persons and organizations are prohibited from giving gifts of any value (unless a separate exception to the gifts rules applies.)
These restrictions do not apply to other organizations that do not directly employ registered federal lobbyists or retain outside registered federal lobbyists. However, because NAR employs registered federal lobbyists, the more restrictive requirements are imposed on NAR. Those restrictions do not also apply to state or local associations as long as they do not employ or retain outside federal registered lobbyists.
FAQs About the New Gift Rules
Are state and local associations subject to the gift limit of “zero” even though they don’t employ federal registered lobbyists, since NAR employs them?
NO. Only if a state or local association, or a real estate firm, employs its’ own registered federal lobbyist does the prohibition on gifts of any value apply. If no federal lobbyist is employed by a state or local association, the association may pay for a meal for a Member of Congress, or staff member, subject to the limit of $50 (and $100 per year aggregate limit.) The same limit applies to an individual Realtor member who pays for a meal for a Member of Congress.
As an FPC, I send coffee and donuts to our Member of Congress’s office each year, or bring him or her various personal gifts. Is that permitted?
YES, so long as the value of the coffee and donuts or the gift(s) sent do not exceed the $50 limit.
Can a REALTOR® Association host a reception for its Congressional delegation and their staffs when members of the association are visiting Washington? Are there any restrictions or limitations on who may pay for the costs of such a reception, or reporting requirements?
YES. A state or local association may host a reception for their Member(s) of Congress and/or staff. Such an event would be permitted under one of two exceptions: as a “reception” or as a “widely attended event.” The reception exception would apply if the refreshments served do not constitute a “meal”—essentially the distinction is whether the food/beverages served are consumed standing up, or served plated and sitting down. The widely attended event exception may also apply if the expected attendance is 25 or more REALTORS® or association staff, not counting the invited Members of Congress and their staffs.
In short, though, such an event is permitted and there are no reporting requirements or funding source limitations. Moreover, NAR’s lobbyist who calls on those Congressional offices may attend the event. Members of Congress may also be accompanied at the event by a spouse or staff person.
Other important exceptions to the gift limitations described above permit the following gifts:
- Gifts based on bona fide, legitimate personal friendship between the donor and the Member of Congress. In determining whether or not the Member and donor have a legitimate personal friendship underlying the gift, all relevant facts and circumstances will be assessed, including the length of the personal friendship, whether it involves a social or business relationship outside the context of service as a Member of Congress, and whether there is a history of reciprocal gift giving between the two parties. If the donor is reimbursed for the cost of the gift by another party (his/her employer, or a state or local association), that fact will weigh heavily against the gift being truly personal, and an entity that employs or retains federal lobbyists (such as NAR) may never reimburse a donor for the cost of a gift whether or not a personal relationship exists between the donor and the intended recipient.
- Food and refreshments other than as a part of a meal, such as food consumed standing up at a reception or a light continental breakfast made available in connection with a morning meeting.
- Plaques, trophies or other commemorative items or items unique or common to the Member’s home state.
- Gifts having nominal value, such as greeting cards, baseball caps or t-shirts.
- Free attendance and amenities offered to others at “widely attended” events, including admission, local transportation to and from the event, refreshments provided to all in attendance, or entertainment provided to all attendees. The Member’s participation must be appropriate to and involve his official duties, such as by making a speech to attendees on active legislative policy issues. Only the sponsor of the event may bear such costs, however; a third party may not pay the admission fee or other costs incurred by the Member of attending such an event. The Member of Congress may also accept free attendance at the event for an accompanying individual, such as a staff member or spouse.
- Payment for travel and lodging in connection with a meeting, speaking engagement, fact finding trip or the like related to the performance of official duties, such as a “fact finding” trip. The Member of Congress must obtain prior approval, and certain other restrictions on the duration of the trip and participation of federal lobbyists in the trip also apply. A federal registered lobbyist may not pay for such travel, and may not engage in planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging the trip.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Some congressional offices have instituted their own rules that are stricter than the rules voted on by the House and Senate.
Questions? Contact Victoria Givens at 202-383-1021.