Ethics rules throw wrench in charity season

Lawmakers and their spouses are chafing under the ethics rules now that springtime, the unofficial start of the season of charity balls and galas, is here.

Share Our Strength, the Wolf Trap Foundation, Arena Stage, the Phillips Collection, the Folger Shakespeare Theater and the Helen Hayes Awards all hold their annual fundraising events in April and May.

The GOP and Democratic retreats earlier this year held ethics briefings, and the ethics committee held separate briefings last week for Republican and Democratic spouses at the Library of Congress. But many questions remain unanswered.

It is clear that lawmakers cannot accept gifts from groups that employ lobbyists. But can lawmakers and spouses eat dinner at a charity event if that charity employs a lobbyist? Can spouses raise money for charities or social clubs? Can they accept gift bags at events?

Several spouses sent a list of upcoming charity events to the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), hoping to spur action on clarifying the rules. The rules so far have not been clarified, and Congress is not taking action to exempt those charities from the rules.

Asked when more guidance would be available to lawmakers, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the ethics committee, said she would announce something when she had something to announce.

A spouse who attended last week’s briefing said the message was simple: If spouses want to do something, they should ask the ethics committee — and not assume they will be innocent until proven guilty.

Without more guidance for determining what is proper within the spirit of the rules, spouses and lawmakers will be less willing to give back. As a case in point, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater experienced a rash of last-minute cancellations at its fundraiser earlier this year, said several congressional spouses.

On March 27, some lawmakers and spouses attended the March of Dimes Gourmet Gala, but they did not stay for dinner because the March of Dimes employs a lobbyist. Those who left were unsure whether it would be ethical to accept the meal.

“If you’re asked to be on a board, it brings up confusing issues,” said a Republican spouse.

Even thornier questions have been raised about the Congressional Club, the congressionally chartered social club for members’ spouses. The Club will host the annual First Ladies Luncheon on May 10.

The Club traditionally has invited corporations and trade associations to sponsor events. For example, defense contractors have sponsored its chili cook-off, while more than 70 corporations sponsored the latest Congressional Club Cookbook. And the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) hosted a luncheon last year that included a program on “makeup techniques, fall color trends and advice on appropriate application,” according to a copy of the Club’s newsletter.

With a new ethics regime in place, some spouses familiar with the Club say that they have questioned whether they may still raise money for the First Ladies Luncheon, where sponsorships go for as much as $25,000 and individual tickets cost $75 per member. Some of the proceeds will go toward the Barbara Bush Library Project.

After much back-and-forth between the Club and the ethics committee, the Club’s leaders decided to outsource the fundraising to former members’ spouses and the Club’s executive director.

“We’re not allowed to call even though we’ve done that in the past,” said a Democratic spouse involved with the Club.

Another issue is whether attendees at the First Ladies Luncheon can accept the event’s gift bag, which in the past has included perfume (compliments of CTFA), a pound of coffee and a notebook. At last year’s lunch, those who sat on the podium were treated to makeovers from CTFA.

In some years, the Club has sought approval from the ethics committee to allow guests at the lunch to accept the gift bag. Other years, they used the rationale that each gift is separate and therefore falls under the $50 gift limit — as long as it is not placed in the same bag with other gifts.

Whether the Club can give away the perfume this year is unclear. The Club has sought a ruling from the ethics committee, said the Democratic spouse.

The overall effect, some say, is detrimental for charities and nonprofit groups.

“I’m not helping as much,” said the Republican spouse. “The unintended consequence is that not as much money is going to nonprofits.”