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Inside Political Law Updates on developments in campaign finance, lobbying & government ethics law

New House Travel Forms Highlight Restrictions on Underwriting Events

Posted in Government Ethics

Thinking about subsidizing a think-tank’s policy conference in Aspen?  If House Members or employees are expected to attend, corporations and trade associations should think twice before cutting the check.

Last month, we highlighted revisions to the House of Representatives travel regulations which kick in for trips on or after April 1, 2013.  New travel sponsor forms announced in a House Ethics Committee memo released last week underscore another important change: regulations restricting the ability of outside entities to underwrite trips and events primarily sponsored by others if House Members or employees are expected to attend.

Under these new rules, an entity (other than a charity or private foundation) cannot underwrite “a trip or an event, meal, or activity that will occur during a trip, or necessary expenses that will be incurred during the trip” if it knows or understands that House members or employees may participate or attend.

Two exceptions may apply, however.  First, the private entity can underwrite the event if the entity has “direct involvement in planning, organizing, conducting, or participating in the trip.”  In these cases, the private entity must complete a “Non-Grantmaking Sponsor” Form to be submitted to the House Ethics Committee.  Second, the private entity can underwrite the event if it gets some tangible benefit from its sponsorship unrelated to congressional participation.  A corporation, for example, can help pay for a trade show attended by House Members if it gets a booth, advertising space, or an official sponsorship designation in return.  (The corporation need not complete a Non-Grantmaking Sponsor Form in these situations).

Public charities and private foundations underwriting trips and events are subject to similar requirements.  They must file a “Grantmaking Sponsor” Form and either have a “bona fide direct role in the organizing, planning, or conducting” of the trip or event or certify that they “conduct an audit or review” of their grant “to ensure that the funds are spent” in accordance with the grant’s terms.  In no case can any lobbyists or foreign agents retained or employed by the trip underwriter have more than a de minimis role in planning, organizing, or arranging the trip.

The upshot here is that when a corporation or trade association makes a payment to a third party entity to enable that third party to hold an event involving paid travel for House Members and staff, they will need to carefully review whether the payment is permissible, and whether it triggers an obligation to complete a form that will be filed with the House Ethics Committee.  The House and Senate travel rules are extraordinarily complex, and they are becoming more complex with each passing year.