Citizen's Guide to Congressional Ethics

Everybody pokes fun at Congress. Will Rogers did it. Jay Leno does it. Saturday Night Live ridicules it. Even 100 years ago, humorist Mark Twain was telling folks, "There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress."

Is Congress really that bad? Could you, Mr. and Ms. America, do better? Or are the 535 members of Congress mostly good, honorable men and women who come here with ideals as noble as Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"? Once here, are some undone by a complicated and inherently corrupt system?

Every day, in hundreds of ways, the ethics of members of Congress are tested. They must juggle thousands of competing interests which clamor for attention. Businessmen, labor leaders, farmers, conservationists, oil drillers, truckers, and others -- including the folks back home -- all come to Capitol Hill with their hands out.

Congressmen are offered free trips ("bring your spouse!"), free meals, gifts, tickets to plays and concerts. Many groups, such as drug manufacturers and labor unions, want special attention, and are willing to pay for it, legally, with huge campaign contributions. Thousands just want small favors from their congressmen, like a speech to their local Rotary club, or a brief appearance at a charity function.

Balancing all these interests isn't easy. Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma says last year, he had 11,200 requests for appointments and speeches. Members know there is always a danger that any single appointment could explode in their faces, as the "Keating 5" senators learned when they sought to help a savings-and-loan official.

To guide House members through this ethical minefield, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has printed a 493-page handbook. It offers guidance on everything from gifts and free travel to the use of campaign funds.

Using the book as a reference, and drawing on illustrations from the manual, here are examples of the ethical questions faced by today's congressmen. If you were a member of Congress, how would you deal with these situations? To test your ethical compass, read on: Example 1 -- The Resolution Trust Corporation is selling off houses once owned by a failed bank. One of them would make a perfect home for you in the Washington suburbs. Can you buy it?

Answer: No. A member of Congress may not enter into a contract or agreement with the United States Government. Example 2 -- After you were elected to Congress, your old law firm dropped your name. But your former partners request that your name still be listed on its letterhead to retain the good will of your former clients. You will get no payment. Can you agree?

Answer: No. Your name cannot be used by firms which provide professional services involving a fiduciary relationship. Example 3 -- A lobbyist offers you four $50 tickets to a hockey game. "Take whomever you like and have a good time," he tells you. Can you legally accept the tickets?

Answer: Yes. The tickets do not exceed a total value of $250, the limit for gifts that any member of Congress can accept from anyone (except relatives) during the course of the year. Example 4 -- In January, an enthusiastic supporter sends you two theater tickets, worth $80. In April, she sends you leather desk accessories worth $130. In December, she gives you a set of crystal stemware worth $120. Can you keep it all?

Answer: It was a trick question. Yes, you may accept everything, even though the total exceeds $250. The reason: gifts worth $100 or less do not count toward the official annual total, so the $250 cap was not exceeded. Example 5 -- A member of your staff helps a recent immigrant in your district get a "green card" so he can work. The man is so grateful that he sends your staff member a porcelain vase worth $100 with a note, saying, "I'll never be able to repay you for what you've done for me." Can the staffer accept the vase?

Answer: No. Even though the item was worth less than $250, it was given in connection with an official act by the House employee. Therefore, it falls under the bribery statutes, and must be returned. Example 6 -- Same situation as above, except the gift is a large box of cookies baked by the immigrant.

Answer: Yes. The gift may be accepted because it is a perishable item, like food or flowers, which is considered a "token." Example 7 -- A charitable foundation invites you to fly to California where you will participate in a celebrity golf tournament it is sponsoring. You will be listed in the tournament's promotional materials as a featured player. May you accept free airfare ($500) and four days' hotel and other expenses ($700) to attend?

Answer: Yes. Since you will have "substantial participation" in the event to help the charity raise funds, and your trip is limited to four days, you fall within the legal guidelines. Example 8 -- You are invited to give a speech at an oil conference in Dallas. The sponsoring organization gives you two first-class air tickets, and will pay your related expenses. Can you accept?

Answer: Yes. You are also allowed to bring along one family member. However, the trip must be reported on your Financial Disclosure Statement, since the cost exceeds $250. Example 9 -- On the same trip to Dallas, you would like to bring along your two children as well as your spouse. You exchange the two first-class tickets for four coach tickets, which cost less, and refund the excess cash to the sponsoring organization. Does this meet House guidelines?

Answer: No. Even though it costs less, you are allowed only one additional family member on an expense-paid trip. Example 10 -- As a lawyer, you would like to represent an indigent client on a no-fee basis. May you do this?

Answer: Yes. But you must comply with stated limits, including a prohibition against practicing in certain federal courts. Example 11 -- One of your staffers, who works for the Foreign Affairs Committee, writes an article on rare butterflies for a nature magazine. The article is written on her own time, using her own computer. May she accept payment of $500?

Answer: No. The payment is seen as an honorarium, which is prohibited for all congressional employees.

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