Ever since President George W. Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) into law in 2007, lobbyists have been banned from giving gifts to Members of Congress and their staffs. Moreover, every lobbyist and lobbying entity must now certify under penalty of perjury, twice yearly that she/he/it has read the House and Senate Ethics rules regarding gifts and travel and has not made or directed any gift to any member, officer or employee of the House or Senate. However, the gift rules do include 23 exceptions on the House side and 24 exceptions on the Senate side. One such exception is the exemption of public universities. The Wall Street Journal reports, “University lobbyists alone among Washington’s power players can provide lawmakers and aides tickets to collegiate sporting events.”
With college bowl season fast approaching, this exception is sure to be put to good use, providing universities an edge in the lobbying game and the value of having a member attend a game cannot be overstated. Bryson Morgan, a former congressional ethics investigator said, “A president’s box is a pretty effective place to make a pitch. Getting one-on-one time with a member of Congress is pretty hard. Yet if you give a member of Congress a ticket to a suite, you can get three to four hours of incredibly valuable time.”
According to the gift rules the lawmakers are not supposed to ask for tickets to university sporting events unless they are invited, and should avoid accepting them “repeatedly,” however, according to the Wall Street Journal’s report, this stipulation is often ignored. One such example from the report is featured below.
“‘So sorry for the late notice,’ an aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) wrote to University of Florida officials on Oct. 15, 2012, a few days before the fourth-ranked Gators hosted the third-ranked University of South Carolina Gamecocks. ‘Would Bill and his son Bill Jr. be able to sit in the President’s Box for the game this weekend (and usual parking at President’s house)?’ Nelson sat in the presidential suite at least seven times between 2012 and 2014, records show. The senator’s spokesman said ‘accepting a college president’s invitation to about two sporting events a year is one way Sen. Nelson expresses his support of the states’ universities.”
Public universities have different policies for giving tickets to lawmakers. The Wall Street Journal reports, “The University of Florida offers lawmakers blanket invitations to attend as many football games as they wish…The University of Alabama delivers two tickets to the offices of a half-dozen Alabama lawmakers before each game,” and the “Ohio State University doesn’t hand out free tickets, but lawmakers can buy tickets to sold-out games through its lobbying office.”
No matter what how the university takes advantage of this exemption, it clearly provides a unique tool for public university lobbyists to gain access to lawmakers.
For more information on the House and Senate’s ethics rules for gifts and travel check out Lobbyists.info’s “The Lobbying Compliance Handbook” or tune in to the “LD-203 Filing Boot Camp: Compliance Training & Filing Preparation” webinar on January 19, 2016.