The Acceptance of Gifts of Free Meals by Members of Congress

RS22231 -- The Acceptance of Gifts of Free Meals by Members of Congress

August 26, 2005


Under House and Senate Rules, Members and staff may not solicit gifts for themselves, and may not accept gifts from any source except in narrowly defined circumstances expressly set out in the respective rules. There is no general exception to the current gift rule prohibitions for the acceptance of free "meals," and thus meals provided by outside, private third parties to Members or staff are considered "gifts" to them, and may not be accepted unless under circumstances which meet other specific exceptions. There are a number of circumstances under which Members or staff may accept free meals offered by private individuals under express exceptions in the congressional rules. The most common exceptions to the gifts prohibitions are for gifts of de minimis value (under $50); the exception for gifts from and between family members; gifts made on the basis of a "personal friendship"; personal hospitality at the home of an individual; or meals which are part of a permissible event attended by the Member or employee. Gifts from those who are lobbyists, foreign agents, or who otherwise have an interest in congressional business are of particular concern and require the exercise of the most caution under House and Senate Rules. The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has noted, for example, that under the so-called "personal friendship" exemption "where a Member or staff person is offered a gift by a lobbyist or someone else who has interests before Congress and either ... the gift is not paid for personally, or there has not been reciprocal gift giving, the official should not accept the gift on the basis of the personal friendship provision."