Gifts you can give the feds, gifts you can’t

President Clinton will spend August on Martha’s Vineyard as the houseguest of a wealthy Bostonian. Renting a comparable house for three weeks would cost an estimated $10,000 to $15,000; but the president is paying nothing. On the other hand, a Federal Trade Commission attorney or a House member, for example, cannot accept even a hockey ticket from a lobbyist. Why the difference? Much has been written about campaign contributions, but little about personal gifts. (That Gov. Nelson Rockefeller gave Henry Kissinger a personal gift of $50,000 cash just two days before Nixon occupied the White House did raise eyebrows.) Without stepping into the policy debate over current ethics rules, what does the law say about who can accept personal gifts, and who decides?

There are actually four bodies that set ethical standards for federal employees. Representatives are regulated by a House committee, senators by a Senate committee, executive employees (including the president) by congressional statute, and the judiciary by itself. The four sets of gift rules vary a little, but all share the common objective of discouraging bribes. (As part of the Republican revolution, both the House and Senate voted themselves stricter rules in 1995, bringing their regulations in line with those they’d imposed on executive employees.)

The rules are: 1) judges and their staffs may not accept gifts; 2) nor may members of the House and their staff accept gifts; 3) executive branch employees–other than the president and vice-president–may accept gifts worth less than $20, and no more than $50 worth of gifts from one source in a year; and 4) senators and their staffs may accept gifts worth less than $50 (one source may give only $100 worth in one year). There are of course many exceptions and fudges, which differ slightly among the four codes. Friends and family many give unlimited gifts. Trophies, commendations, work-related travel, award money, official dinners, baseball caps, soda pop, coffee, and T-shirts are generally OK. (The House posts a memo on gift-giving chock full of real-world examples like “Laura Lobbyist offers Stanley Staffer tickets to a hockey game taking place in January, 1996. Stanley may not accept.”)

The most interesting exception to the federal regulations for executive employees applies to exactly two people–the president and the vice-president–who are exempted from the limits on gift value. Federal regulations justify the exception “because of considerations relating to the conduct of their offices, including those of protocol and etiquette.” The president and vice-president may accept gifts of any value from American citizens so long as they don’t solicit the gift and aren’t influenced by it. A gift from a foreign citizen or government worth less than $245 dollars is acceptable, gifts worth more belong to the United States government. When the president accepts certain kinds of gifts from American citizens worth more than $250, he must disclose this fact. In the case of the Vineyard house, though, because it falls into the category of “personal hospitality”, the president need not disclose the value of this gift on his personal disclosure forms.