If You Get a Holiday Gift Basket, One Option Is to ‘Destroy’ It

House Ethics Committee reminds Congress that the rules still apply, even in December

The House Ethics Committee issued a memo reminding lawmakers and staff of the gift rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The House Ethics Committee issued a memo reminding lawmakers and staff of the gift rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 29, 2018 at 5:46pm

Members of Congress and their staff got a friendly reminder Thursday that the House gift rule still applies, “even during the holiday season.”

The House Ethics Committee circulated a memo with guidance for navigating the tricky month of December, complete with steps for accepting certain presents and tips for handling an “unacceptable” gift.

If you get an off-limits item, you have a few options: Pay the giver and keep it, or give it back.

For flowers or a gift basket full of fresh food, congressional recipients can donate the items to charity or “destroy them,” according to the memo. If the giver is unknown, there’s also the option of keeping the gift and writing a check to the U.S. Treasury.

Those with generous family members are in luck. There are no restrictions on accepting gifts, including cash, from relatives.

Typically, members of Congress and supervisors are not supposed to accept gifts from their subordinates, and employees can’t give gifts to their bosses. But the memo clarifies that the House Ethics panel provides a “common-sense exception for voluntary gifts extended on special occasions such as holidays.” That means the office Secret Santa or white elephant exchange is still on.

Members and staff may attend holiday receptions and accept gifts as long as the per-person price of the hospitality or gift is worth less than $50 and doesn’t come from a lobbyist, foreign agent or entity that lobbies. The total value of gifts and invitations from the hosting party to the recipient must be less than $100 during the calendar year.

Inexpensive items such as baseball hats, T-shirts and anything worth less than $10 are also acceptable, even from an organization that lobbies.

The eight-page document outlines what types of holiday parties are allowed and which aren’t. A good rule of thumb: Estimate how much party food would cost, and make sure that the host isn’t a federally registered lobbyist or foreign agent.

Staff and members need to know who their real friends are, and who’s inviting them because of their professional position. A spouse’s work holiday party is allowed, as long as all the other spouses are also invited and everyone is plied with the same food, drinks and entertainment.

But if it’s a party hosted by a lobbying firm that includes a full dinner and top-shelf cocktails, staffers and members would have to skip. 

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