While it's legal for staffers to work voluntarily on a lawmaker's campaign, your use of quotation marks leads me to believe that you feel like you're being coerced. If that's the case, you’re right; that's an ethics violation.
Here's a direct quote from the website of the House's Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (informally known as the ethics committee):
It should be stressed that although House employees are free to engage in campaign activities on their own time, in no event may a Member or office compel a House employee to do campaign work. To do so would result in an impermissible official subsidy of the Member’s campaign.
The prohibition against coercing staff or requiring staff members to do campaign work is quite broad. It forbids Members and senior staff from not only threatening or attempting to intimidate employees regarding doing campaign work, but also from directing or otherwise pressuring them to do such work.
My question for you is: Why do you feel obligated to say yes? I could see this scenario as one in which your reaction is a bit too sensitive. Sometimes a question is just a question. Campaigns, as I’m sure you know, are exhausting and resource-hungry. The person doing the asking here may just be looking for any help at this point (especially if your boss is in a tight race).
I think you need to handle this situation in the most direct way possible, so my first recommendation is to say no politely. Tell him or her that you’re really pulling for your boss to win another election but your outside commitments will prevent you from volunteering on the campaign.
Concurrently, document these interactions — when and how this person asked you to volunteer, and when and how you responded. This will help you in the event that you need to build a case that you were being coerced.
If the inquiries become persistent, point out the rule above that provides you cover. If that doesn’t take care of the problem, consider this a full-blown office conflict and use your available resources accordingly.
(I addressed office conflicts in the May 25 column. The House Office of Employee Assistance — 202-225-2400 — or Senate Employee Assistance Program — 202-224-3902 — are good starts.)
One final thought: Why don’t you want to campaign for your boss? If he/she is in a competitive race and loses, you’re out of a job. If you have a life situation that doesn't give you much free time (family troubles, an illness), simply tell your colleagues that. If you don't care one way or the other whether the boss gets reelected, then that’s a different story. Ultimately, you'll have to decide whether you want to continue working for a boss who resorts to intimidation tactics and skirts ethics rules to get things done.
Indeed, a "no" answer in this situation may stunt your career trajectory in this office, but remember that Capitol Hill is a very fluid marketplace. Congressional staffers switch offices frequently, and it might be time for you to start thinking about your next move.
Have a question for A Second Opinion? E-mail Kris Kitto at email@example.com.
Cross-posted from The Washington Scene