The guidance herein is intended as a summary of relevant Senate Rules, federal law, and related standards of conduct. The application of ethics laws, rules and standards of conduct is fact-specific, and the information herein is not meant as a substitute for obtaining the Committee’s advice and guidance on a particular matter. Providing advisory guidance to Members, officers, and employees is an important part of the Committee’s work, and the Committee strongly encourages Members, officers, and employees to contact the Committee and seek advice whenever possible.
This section discusses the most frequently used exceptions. The exceptions do not supersede applicable federal laws and regulations that otherwise prohibit acceptance of a gift, discussed in greater detail below.
Gifts under $50
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, other than cash or cash equivalent (e.g., stock, gift card, voucher), having a value of less than $50, provided that the source of the gift is not a registered lobbyist, foreign agent, or private entity that retains or employs a registered lobbyist or foreign agent. The value of gifts that may be accepted from any one source in a calendar year may not exceed $100. Generally, gifts having a value of less than $10 do not count toward the annual limit. See Senate Rule 35.1(a)(2). However, accepting repeated gifts worth less than $10 from the same source may violate the spirit of the Gifts Rule.
Gifts from Certain Sources
Gifts from Relatives
A Member, officer, or employee may accept any gift that is given by a relative (including in-laws and fiancés) regardless of value. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(3).
Gifts on the Basis of Personal Friendship
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift that is given on the basis of personal friendship, unless there is reason to believe that the gift was provided because of the individual’s official position and not because of the personal friendship. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(4). If the gift exceeds $250 in value, the Member, officer, or employee must seek and receive written approval from the Committee to accept the gift. See Senate Rule 35.1(e).
In determining whether a gift is provided on the basis of personal friendship, the Member, officer, or employee must consider the circumstances under which the gift was offered, including: (1) the history of the recipient’s relationship with the giver, including any previous exchange of gifts; (2) whether, to the recipient’s actual knowledge, the giver personally paid for the gift or sought a tax deduction or business reimbursement for the gift; and (3) whether, to the recipient’s actual knowledge, the giver gave the same or similar gifts to other Members, officers, or employees at the same time.
Gifts from Colleagues
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift from another Member, officer, or employee of the Senate or House of Representatives. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(6).
However, 5 U.S.C. § 7351 generally prohibits federal employees from (1) giving gifts to their supervisors, and (2) accepting gifts from employees who are paid less than them. The law authorizes the Committee to exempt voluntary gifts given or received for special occasions or under circumstances in which gifts are traditionally given or exchanged. The Committee has given blanket permission for gifts among Senate and House Members, officers, and employees on the occasion of a marriage, retirement, birth of a child, birthday, anniversary, or holiday, provided such gifts or contributions toward such gifts are entirely voluntary.
Gifts of Personal Hospitality
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift of personal hospitality provided by an individual other than a registered lobbyist or foreign agent. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(17).
The personal hospitality exemption is intended to cover hospitality in any personal residence which an individual owns, or leases under a lease which is unrelated to the individual’s employment. As a general rule, to qualify for the exemption, the residence or other property may not be property which is rented out to others by the individual providing the hospitality.
The personal hospitality exemption does not apply to hospitality by individuals in restaurants, nightclubs, or in any other commercial establishment. Personal hospitality is exempted only if paid for by an individual, not a corporation or firm, even if the corporation or firm is wholly owned by the individual.
Gifts Paid for by Federal, State, or Local Government
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, including transportation, food, and lodging, that is paid for by the federal, state or local government, or secured by the government under a government contract. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(16). The Committee has determined that under this exception, a Member, officer, or employee may accept gifts from any Native American group with whom the federal government has entered into formal recognition of sovereignty. The Department of the Interior publishes a list of federally recognized tribes.
Gifts Paid for by Foreign Government
The U.S. Constitution prohibits government officials, including Members, officers, and employees, from receiving “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever” from a foreign state or representative without the consent of Congress. See U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 8. Congress has consented to the acceptance of certain gifts from foreign governments, through the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act (FGDA), 5 U.S.C. § 7342, and the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA).
Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act (FGDA) – 5 U.S.C. § 7342,”
FGDA authorizes acceptance of a gift of minimal value when given as a souvenir or mark of courtesy. Minimal value for the Senate is no more than $100. A Member, officer, or employee may accept, but not retain, a gift in excess of $100 when refusal of the gift would cause offense or embarrassment. Such gifts are deemed to be accepted on behalf of the United States. Within 60 days of acceptance, the recipient must turn the gift over to the Secretary of the Senate for disposal, and submit the Reporting Acceptance of Gifts from a Foreign Government or Multinational Organization Form to the Committee. The recipient may also use this form to request the Committee’s approval to retain the gift for an official purpose, such as display in their office.
FGDA also allows Members, officers, and employees to accept travel and travel-related expenses paid for by a foreign government, if the travel occurs completely outside the United States. Such travel must also be reported to the Committee using the Reporting Acceptance of Gifts from a Foreign Government or Multinational Organization Form.
Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA) – 22 U.S.C. § 2451 et seq.
MECEA authorizes the U.S. Department of State (State Department) to approve cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and other countries. A Member, officer, or employee may accept travel expenses from a foreign government in order to participate in approved MECEA programs. To determine whether a program is approved under MECEA, please contact the State Department Congressional Liaison.
Gifts of Certain Types
Items of Little Intrinsic Value
A Member, officer, or employee may accept an item of little intrinsic value, such as a greeting card, baseball cap, or T-shirt. This exception also includes food and non-food items valued at $10 or less, including flowers and perishables provided to a Senate office. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(23).
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a plaque, trophy, or other item that is substantially commemorative in nature and which is intended solely for presentation. The item must be presented as part of an event. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(20).
Awards or Prizes
A Member, officer, or employee may accept an award or prize won in a contest or event that is open to the public. For example, an employee who purchases a winning lottery ticket may keep the prize money. While a trophy or non-monetary equivalent may be accepted if it is won in an athletic competition, monetary or monetary equivalent items may not be accepted as a “prize” or “award” for winning, unless such competition is open to the public, or unless the group of competitors was chosen on the basis of athletic talent. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(10). Awards or prizes generally may not be accepted at an event to which a Senate individual was invited due to his or her Senate position.
Honorary Degrees and Other Awards
A Member, officer, or employee may accept an honorary degree or other bona fide nonmonetary award that is presented in recognition of public service. This exception includes food or refreshments provided as a part of the presentation of such awards (e.g., a banquet or reception), as well as any entertainment provided as part of the presentation. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(11).
Donations of Home State Products
A Member may accept donations of products (e.g., apples, peanuts, popcorn, coffee, candy, orange juice) from the state that the Member represents that are intended primarily for promotional purposes, such as display or free distribution, and are of minimal value to any individual recipient. These products must be from the Senator’s home state, must be from home state producers or distributors, and must be available to office visitors. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(12).
Loan of Artwork and Furnishings
A Member may accept a loan of artwork or furnishings, for display in their office, from home state producers or distributors. A loan of artwork or furnishings may not be accepted from a home state resident who is merely a private collector. Fixtures (e.g., wallpaper, carpeting) also may not be accepted on loan, even if offered by a home state producer or distributor. Loans of artwork and furnishings must be approved in writing by the Committee. Approval letters are publicly available. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(12).
A Member, officer, or employee may accept informational materials that are sent to the Senate office in the form of books, articles, periodicals, other written materials, audiotapes, videotapes, or other forms of communication. Under this exception, such material may only be provided by the author, publisher, or producer of the materials. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(9).
Widely Available Opportunities and Benefits
A Member, officer, or employee may accept certain opportunities and benefits that are available to the general public, to all federal employees, or to all members of an organization unrelated to congressional employment. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(19).
Benefits Resulting from Outside Activities
A Member, officer, or employee may accept food, refreshments, lodging, and other benefits resulting from their outside business or employment activities (or other outside activities that are not connected to their duties as an officeholder), or resulting from their spouse’s employment, if such benefits have not been offered or enhanced because of their official position and are customarily provided to others in similar circumstances. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(7).
Pensions from Former Employers
A Member, officer, or employee may maintain a pension or other benefit plan from a former employer without having to cash it in or roll it over upon commencing Senate employment. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(8). However, neither the former employer nor the Member, officer, or employee may continue to make contributions to the pension or other benefit plan. Thus, an employee who participated in a 401(k) plan maintained by his employer would be able to keep his account with his former employer when he began working for the Senate, but neither he nor his former employer could make any additional contributions to the plan.
Bequests and Inheritances
A Member, officer, or employee may accept bequests, inheritances, and other transfers at death. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(14).
Contributions to Legal Expense Trust Funds
A Member, officer, or employee may accept a lawfully made contribution to a legal expense trust fund, other than by a registered lobbyist (or lobbying firm) or foreign agent. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(5). Such legal expense trust funds must be approved by the Committee and are subject to the Legal Expense Trust Fund Regulations.
Gifts of Free Attendance at Events
The Gifts Rule allows a Member, officer, or employee to accept an offer of free attendance at certain types of events. The below exceptions cover only free admission to such events. As such, gift bags or other items provided at an event must fall under another Gifts Rule exception to be accepted.
A Member, officer, or employee may accept food or refreshments of a nominal value offered other than as part of a meal (e.g., hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, or a “continental breakfast”). See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(22).
Widely Attended Events
A Member, officer, or employee may accept an unsolicited offer of “free attendance” at a widely attended event if: (1) invited by the organizing event sponsor; (2) at least 25 persons from outside Congress are expected to attend; (3) attendance at the event is open to the general public, individuals from throughout a given industry or profession, or to a range of persons interested in an issue; and (4) attendance is appropriate to the recipient’s Senate duties. See Senate Rule 35.1(d)(1).
“Free attendance” may include waiver of all or part of a conference or other fee, the provision of local transportation, or the provision of food, refreshments, entertainment, and instructional materials furnished to all attendees as an integral part of the event. It does not include entertainment collateral to the event, or food or refreshments that are not taken in a group setting with substantially all of the other attendees. It also does not include admission to a sporting, entertainment, or other purely recreational event.
In addition to free attendance for themselves, a Member, officer, or employee may also accept an unsolicited offer of free attendance for one accompanying individual if such attendance is appropriate to assist in the representation of the Senate.
A Member, officer, or employee may accept an unsolicited offer of “free attendance” to a charity event where the primary purpose is to raise money for a § 501(c)(3) organization, so long as they are invited by the organizing event sponsor. Although organizations that put on charity events may designate groups underwriting the event as “sponsors” in their invitations and promotional materials, for purposes of the Gifts Rule, an individual or entity does not become a “sponsor” of an event merely by donating money, goods, or services for, or purchasing a table at, the event.
“Free attendance” may include waiver of all or part of a fee for admission, the provision of local transportation, and the provision of food, refreshments, entertainment, and instructional materials furnished to all attendees as an integral part of the event. A Member, officer, or employee may also accept an unsolicited offer of free attendance for an immediate family member. See Senate Rule 35.1(d)(3).
A Member, officer, or employee may accept training that is in the interest of the Senate, and food and refreshments that are offered to all attendees as a part of the training. Non-local transportation or lodging may not be accepted. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(13).
For purposes of the Gifts Rule, “training” includes any event where information is presented to Members and staff by an outside group, so long as the event is expected to be attended by at least 25 persons from more than one Senate office, in addition to those attending from outside the Senate. Before attendance is permitted at an event under the training exception, the Member, officer, or employee must also make an affirmative determination that the training provided by the event is “in the interest of the Senate.”
Campaign or Political Events
A Member, officer, or employee may accept “free attendance” at a fundraiser sponsored by a political organization described in section 527(e) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. See Senate Rule 35.1(c)(2). The term “free attendance” includes food, refreshments, entertainment, and local transportation in connection with the campaign event. Under this exception, a Member, officer, or employee may accept a ticket to a campaign fundraiser from sources other than the sponsor of the fundraising event. However, only a sponsoring political organization may pay related travel expenses outside of the individual’s official duty station.
A Member, officer, or employee may accept an offer of “free attendance” at a “constituent event,” such as a conference, forum, panel discussion, dinner event, site visit, or reception if: (1) the event takes place in the Member’s home state; (2) is attended primarily by a group of by at least five constituents; (3) no lobbyist or foreign agent attends the event; (4) participation is in connection with official duties; and (5) the value of any meal provided is less than $50. See Senate Rule 35.1(g).
The Committee is authorized to grant waivers of the Gifts Rule in unusual cases. The Committee will grant requests for such waivers only where there is no potential conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety.
The Committee routinely waives the Gifts Rule to allow the acceptance of wedding gifts without requiring the individual to seek written approval from the Committee for each individual gift that exceeds $250. Those seeking a wedding gifts waiver must submit a written request to the Committee, and may use the Wedding Waiver Request Form. Individuals should request a waiver as soon as possible after becoming engaged in the event that gifts are purchased in advance of the wedding.
Significant Dating Relationships
The Committee also waives the Gifts Rule for gifts offered because of a significant, personal, dating relationship where the person giving the gift is not seeking official action from the person receiving the gift or that person’s supervising Senator.
A Member, officer, or employee who receives an impermissible gift must either pay the donor fair market value for the gift, or return the gift to the donor without using it.
If it is not practicable to return a tangible item to the donor because it is perishable (e.g., food or flowers), the item may be given to a § 501(c)(3) charity or discarded. The Committee has determined that in those instances where it is impractical to transport a perishable item to a charity, the item may be placed in the reception area or other common area where it may be shared by constituents and other visitors to the office. See Senate Rule 35.1(f).
Generally, for purposes of the Gifts Rule, items are valued at their fair market value, and at retail, rather than wholesale prices.
Tickets to Events
The fair market value of a ticket to an event, including a sporting or entertainment event, is the face value of the ticket. If there is no face value, then the value of the ticket is the highest face value of any ticket to the event, except that if a ticket holder can establish in advance of the event to the Committee that the ticket at issue is equivalent to another ticket with a lower face value, then the fair market value shall be set at the face value of the equivalent ticket. In establishing equivalency, the ticket holder shall provide written and independently verifiable information related to the primary features of the ticket, including, at a minimum, the seat location, access to parking, availability of food and refreshments, and access to venue areas not open to the public. The Committee may make a determination of equivalency only if such information is provided in advance of the event.
Flights on Private Planes
Pursuant to federal law, the fair market value of a flight on a private plane is the pro rata share of the fair market value of the normal and usual charter fare or rental charge for a comparable plane of comparable size, as determined by dividing such cost by the number of Members, officers, or employees of Congress on the flight. See Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, Pub. L. 110–81 (2007), Senate Rule 35.1(c)(1)(C).
Members, officers, and employees are generally prohibited from soliciting a gift, even if such gift would be acceptable under the Gifts Rule. See 5 U.S.C. § 7353. Pursuant to authority granted under the statute, the Committee has recognized an exception to the prohibition for solicitations on behalf of a § 501(c)(3) public charity made in the Member’s, officer’s, or employee’s personal capacity, without official resources, and not targeting federally registered lobbyists or foreign agents.
Bribery and Illegal Gratuity
Members, officers, and employees may not accept a gift that is offered in connection with an official action taken or asked to be taken. Such action may be deemed a bribe or an illegal gratuity under federal criminal law. See 18 U.S.C. § 201.
Not necessarily. While the Gifts Rule generally bars gifts from lobbyists, there is an exception for gifts given on the basis of personal friendship. Under this exception, you may accept a gift given on the basis of personal friendship unless you have reason to believe that, under the circumstances, the gift is being provided to you because of your official position as a Member, officer, or employee, and not because of your personal friendship.
In determining whether a gift is provided on the basis of personal friendship, you must consider the circumstances under which the gift was offered; the history of your friendship, including any history of exchanging gifts; whether your friend is personally paying for the gift or seeking a reimbursement or business deduction; whether your friend has any business before your office or the Senate; whether your friend is offering the same or similar gift to other Members, officers, or employees of the Senate; and any other relevant facts.
If your friend offers you a gift over $250 in value, you must obtain the Committee’s written permission to accept it. Note that if you are required to file Financial Disclosure Reports, you must report all gifts you receive from any source, other than a relative, aggregating $415 or more in value. For additional information about reporting gifts, please review the Financial Disclosure Instructions for the relevant year.
Yes. Under the Gifts Rule, you may accept a benefit resulting from your spouse’s outside employment, as long as the benefit has not been offered or enhanced because of your official Senate position and the benefit is customarily provided to others in similar circumstances. Because this invitation, which confers the same benefits to all invitees, was not offered because of your Senate position, and free attendance at the holiday party has been offered to all employees, accepting free attendance would be consistent with the Gifts Rule.
As with all gifts, however, you should consider whether accepting the gift may create even the appearance of impropriety, especially where the donor has business before your office or the Senate, prior to accepting the invitation.
Complete the Wedding Waiver Request Form to request a waiver to accept gifts given to you on the occasion of your wedding. If granted, the Committee will issue you an approval letter. Because the waiver is only effective for gifts received after the date of the Committee’s letter, we encourage you to complete this form well in advance of your anticipated wedding date.
Note that if you are required to file Financial Disclosure Reports, you must report all gifts you receive from any source, other than a relative, aggregating $415 or more in value (for CY 2020). For additional information about reporting gifts, please review the Financial Disclosure Instructions for the relevant year.
Probably, yes. The Gifts Rule allows you to accept free attendance at a “widely attended event” from the event sponsor. This exception requires that the event be attended by at least 25 persons from outside Congress, and be open to the public or to a range of persons interested in an issue or from throughout a given industry or profession. It also requires that you determine that attendance at the event is appropriate to the performance of your official duties. If these elements are met, the exception allows you to accept a waiver of the conference fee and any meal taken in a group setting with substantially all attendees.
The widely attended event exception does not apply to a sporting, entertainment, or other purely recreational event.
Yes. The Gifts Rule provides an exception for a bona fide, nonmonetary award offered in recognition of public service. The exception also applies to food, refreshments, and entertainment provided as part of the presentation of the award.
The exception does not apply to monetary awards (e.g., cash prizes).
- Regulations and Guidelines for Privately-Sponsored Travel
- Regulations and Guidelines for Privately-Sponsored Travel – Glossary of Terms
- Legal Expense Trust Fund Regulations
- 5 U.S.C. app. §§ 101-112 – Ethics in Government Act (Financial Disclosure)
- 5 U.S.C. § 7342 – Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act
- 5 U.S.C. § 7351 – Gifts to Superiors
- 5 U.S.C. § 7353 – Anti-Solicitation
- 18 U.S.C. § 201 – Bribery and Illegal Gratuity
- 22 U.S.C. § 2451 – Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act
- Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, Pub. L. 110-81 (2007)
- Senate Ethics Manual (2003 ed.) (Chapter 2: Gifts)
- Gifts Quick Reference Guide
- Dear Colleague: Guidance on Campaign Activity (April 2016)
- Dear Colleague: Application of the Senate Gifts Rule to Inaugural-Related Events (Jan. 2013)
- Attendance at Events Held During the National Party Conventions (March 2012)
- Dear Colleague: Application of the Senate Gifts Rule to Inaugural-Related Events (Dec. 2008)
- Dear Colleague: Application of the Senate Gifts Rule to the National Political Conventions (July 2008)
- Events Honoring Members at the National Party Conventions (Feb. 2008)
- New Guidance Under the Gifts Rule (Feb. 2008)
- New Ethics Rules - Gifts and Events (Sept. 2007)
- Dear Colleague: Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief Efforts (Sept. 2005)