Congressional red tape, not red ribbon, this holiday

The Grinch is alive and well and stalking the marble halls of Congress.

Most lawmakers don’t give their staffs Christmas gifts, according to an informal survey by The Hill, and most staffers don’t get anything for their bosses or each other.

“We don’t have a tradition,” said Jude McCartin, communications director for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). “He’s our boss; he’s not our friend. Frankly, I don’t think he would see that as necessary at all.”

Bingaman has occasionally given members of his staff White House Christmas ornaments, but “it’s not something we all expect or plan for,” McCartin said. Instead, Bingaman’s annual celebration is usually an office potluck meal.
 
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In Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) office, the holiday spirit is just as bleak. Aside from yearly bonuses, there are no gifts. “Why not?” asked Emile Milne, Rangel’s longtime aide and spokesman. “I don’t know. It doesn’t happen.”

He said that he thinks it may be because most of Rangel’s staff members have their own families, so “their gift-giving-type thinking is related to their families. That is universally true in the office.”

On the other hand, Milne joked, “we give to each other every day. Every day in this office is Christmas.”

It’s no wonder that gift-giving is a touchy subject. House ethics rules are long and intricate and specifically address gift-giving between lawmakers and their employees. Members may accept gifts from another member or an employee, but government employees are generally barred from giving anything of value to anyone higher up the chain.

The rule states: “While the Committee has recognized common-sense exceptions for voluntary gifts on special occasions, as a general rule, Members may not accept things of value from their staff members, and higher level staff members may not accept things of value from those who work for them.”

Maybe it’s this that makes so many staffers treat questions about holiday gift-giving and parties as though this reporter were seeking disclosure of national secrets. There was something firm and formal in the voice of Michael Kirk, spokesman for Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), when asked whether the food at the lawmaker’s house party in East Hartford was homemade or catered. “Anything served at his home is always delicious,” he intoned. Well said; give that man a raise.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), the millionaire former owner of the Kohl’s department-store chain, gets a gag gift from his staff each year. He hosts a dinner for them at a nearby restaurant.

The tradition in Rep. John Lewis’s (D-Ga.) office is that the lawmaker hosts two lunches for his staff, one in Washington and one in his district in Atlanta.

“We don’t have a specific place; we just find a place for lunch,” said Lewis’s chief of staff, Michael Collins. “We don’t share gifts. We share each other’s company at lunch.”

It’s not as though a bit more congressional holiday cheer wouldn’t be welcome. “We don’t do anything like that,” said Rep. Adam Putnam’s (R-Fla.) spokesman Shawn Dhar, referring to gift-giving. “I wish we did.”

In Rep. Danny K. Davis’s (D-N.Y.) office, there are no gifts but the Christmas spirit isn’t dead. Davis throws a huge Christmas party each year in a park in his district.

It’s usually attended by homeless people and busloads of senior citizens. It’s for “people who don’t get out a lot, who can come and just schmooze with the congressman,” said Davis’ spokesman Ira Cohen.

In past years, the bash has attracted crowds of 500 to 1,000. This year’s party, which is set for Dec. 16, will be a full sit-down meal. Individuals or local businesses donate food — turkey, ham, dressing, vegetables, cakes, pies and cookies. And gifts! — scarves for the women and socks for the men.

“Everybody just comes and eats and there’s not much speechifying, but [there are] people getting together and celebrating,” Cohen said. Come Chrisms Eve, the lawmaker and his staff go caroling at halfway houses in his district, where Davis recites “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Cohen said gift-giving within the office does not fit the congressman’s style. “He doesn’t have any real material needs,” Cohen said. “He’d appreciate it more if people went caroling with him than if you bought him a pen or pencil set.”

There are exceptions to the congressional rule about gifts. Some staffers pool their funds to buy the boss a present. Rep. David Price’s (D-N.C.) staff always buys him a small gift — last year it was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s autobiography; another year it was a Clay Aiken CD. (Aiken, the famed “American Idol” singer, is Price’s constituent.)

In return, Price spokesman Bridgett Lowell explained, the congressman brings the staff trinkets from his congressional trips abroad. “One year we had boxes from Turkey, inlaid wood and mother-of-pearl,” she said.

Staffers in the office of Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) pay attention to his wardrobe. Last year they bought the freshman lawmaker a white button-down shirt and a red-and-blue-striped tie from Brooks Brothers and a holiday food basket for his family. This year, it’s more clothing for Garrett.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-Ill.) staff buys the boss a gift, but there is no party. Knowing that Jackson has a black belt in tae kwan do, one year they bought him martial-arts videos. Another year they bought him a framed photograph of himself from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Spokesman Frank Watkins doesn’t think the office misses out by not having a formal gift exchange. “I don’t think it matters,” he said.

Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) office typically celebrates the holidays by taking his entire staff out to dinner in Queens, N.Y., where they swap inexpensive presents. “I always end up with bath soaps or face cream,” said Anson Kaye, Weiner’s spokes-man. “Surprisingly, I will get that, and no will swap with me.”

Members of Rep. Katherine Harris’s (R-Fla.) staff plan to meet on their own time and exchange low-cost gifts. The whole affair isn’t terribly personal. “Basically we’re going to get a gift for anybody,” said Harris spokesman Garrison Courtney. “It’s pretty cheap, under $10.”

Some staffers find the whole thing too private and therefore distasteful to discuss. Harry Glenn, Rep. Bill Young’s (R-Fla.) spokesman, said staff members don’t give Young a gift, but the lawmaker does give his aides presents.

What does the lawmaker give them? “That’s between him and us,” Glenn said.