I am a senior House staff member whose job responsibilities require frequent trips to meetings and conferences around the country. Because the travel expenses can quickly add up, those of us who take such trips typically seek and obtain reimbursement from the event sponsors. It is also not uncommon for many of my co-workers to bring their spouses on these trips, in which case the staff members obtain reimbursement for the spouse’s expenses as well. My understanding is that this is OK under the ethics rules. My question is whether the rules also allow reimbursement for the expenses of a travel companion to whom I am not legally married. Specifically, I am gay and have lived with my partner for 12 years. We live in Washington, D.C., and are registered as domestic partners with the D.C. Department of Health. Because of the frequency of my travel, I would like my partner to accompany me to some of the events, but we can’t afford to pay for him to do so. Do the rules allow me to obtain reimbursement for his expenses from the events’ sponsors?
A: The House ethics provisions governing travel expenses appear in House Rule 25. Under those provisions, you may obtain reimbursement from certain private sources for necessary transportation, lodging and related expenses for travel to events in connection with duties of an officeholder. Let’s assume here that the events for which you will be seeking reimbursement qualify and that the sources of reimbursement are allowable under the rules. That would leave only the question that you have raised: whether your partner’s expenses are “necessary” under the rule.
Prior to 2005, the scope of “necessary” expenses under the rule included, among other things, “travel expenses incurred on behalf of either the spouse or a child.” Ethics committee guidance at that time stated that because reimbursement was not allowed for any individual other than a spouse or child, the committee would not approve reimbursement for other relatives or fiances.
In 2005, the House changed the definition of necessary expenses from those incurred by a spouse or a child to those incurred by a “relative.” This new definition remains in place today. Therefore, under the current rule, your question comes down to whether your partner qualifies as a relative.
Unfortunately, the rule does not define relative in this context. Moreover, the ethics committee has not published a definition or relevant guidance. In fact, the guidance regarding travel companions in the Gift and Travel Booklet on the committee’s Web site uses the former language of the rule — spouse or child — not the current language, relative.
In the absence of a formal definition, you do have an argument that your domestic partner qualifies as a relative. In D.C., legally registered domestic partners are afforded many of the same legal rights afforded to married couples, including, for example, health insurance, testimonial privileges, alimony and child support. Therefore, you could argue that domestic partners should qualify as “relatives.”
However, the ethics committee is not necessarily bound by the D.C. registration law. Moreover, there is language elsewhere in the rule, albeit in a different context, that might undermine your argument. That language appears in one of the exceptions to the rule’s general prohibition of all gifts to Members and staff. It states that the prohibition on gifts does not apply to gifts from a “relative as described in … the Ethics in Government Act.” If you turn to the definition in that act, you will find a list of 36 different relations that qualify as relatives, none of which would appear to include domestic partners. Therefore, while an argument exists that your domestic partner qualifies as a “relative” for purposes of travel reimbursement, there also is language that throws that argument into question.
Ultimately, of course, it is not for you or me to resolve this ambiguity. Rather, it is up to the ethics committee. If you wish to obtain reimbursement for your domestic partner’s expenses related to travel to a particular event, you should seek the approval of the committee before incurring the cost.
In fact, if you expect that your domestic partner may join you on a number of your work-related trips, you might even consider requesting that the ethics committee provide a general statement approving your domestic partner as an appropriate candidate for reimbursement. While the committee may be reluctant to provide general statements regarding the applicability of the ethics rules, there are circumstances where it has been willing to do so.
For example, upon written request, the committee will issue a general statement waiving the gift prohibition for wedding and baby gifts. It may be worth requesting a similar general statement here, approving reimbursement for the travel expenses of your domestic partner similar to the relatives who already are covered. Since such reimbursement would be unavailable without the committee’s approval, it can’t hurt to ask. The worst thing that could happen is that they say no.
C. Simon Davidson is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of McGuireWoods LLP. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.