Tuesday Ethics Tip: Meal Definition Edition

The House and Senate Ethics Rules are very strict regarding providing food and meals (notice they are two different things) to Members and Staffers. Lobbyists and lobbying organizations must be especially careful that they stay within the rules – because they are not allowed to give “any thing of value” to a Member or staffer, provision of food or a meal must fall within one of several exceptions.

The Ethics rules recognize certain food as a meal, regardless of its cost. Even low-cost meals such as pizza, hot dogs, or sandwiches are counted as meals.

Meals at a Glance As Defined by Ethics Rules

Meal Menu Is a Meal Menu NOT a Meal
Breakfast Full breakfast: eggs, bacon, etc. Continental breakfast: Bagels, muffins, doughnuts, juice, coffee, tea
Lunch Sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza, soups, luncheon entrees, salads, hamburgers Light appetizers – not as part of a meal
Dinner Sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza, soups, dinner entrees, salads, hamburgers; carving stations, pasta stations Light appetizers, no heavy hors d’oeuvres offered as a substitute for a meal

If you are a lobbyist or your organization employs or retains a lobbyist, in order to offer and pay for a Member or staffer’s meal under the menu descriptions above, it must fall within one of the exceptions listed below for it to be legally offered to a Member/staffer.

There are specific circumstances where a lobbyist or lobbying entity is allowed to pay for a meal of a Member/staffer in the House and Senate and one additional type of meal which applies only to Senators and Senate staff. The meal exceptions include meals served at, by or involving:

  • A charitable event
  • A widely attended event
  • A constituent event in Washington, D.C. (applies to House and Senate)
  • A Senate “constituent event” – held in home state of senator
  • An educational event
  • Training in the interest of the House and/or Senate
  • Circumstances involving personal friendship
  • Circumstances in which the meal is received/offered in his/her role other than as congressional Member or employee
  • A meal incident to a site visit
  • A federal, state, or local government entity
  • A foreign government
  • A relative
  • A political fundraising event
  • An awards ceremony or occasion where a Member/staffer is being honored

For each exception noted above, there are several factors that must ALL be present in order for the exception to apply. Seek guidance when planning a meal or event where food may be served and Members or staffers invited. Check out our Cinco de Mayo Post for guidance on offering drinks.

This post is condensed from the Lobbying Compliance Handbook.

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