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Association Bisnow
March 13, 2008



We thought we could no longer be shocked by the unintended consequences of laws coming out of Capitol Hill, but this one did the trick. Congress seems to have written one that requires Hill staffers to get permission before they can marry—or at least accept an engagement ring. As Scott Sinder of Steptoe & Johnson tells us, it comes from the 2007 Honest Leadership & Open Government Act.


Scott handles appellate litigation (for the non-lawyers out there, that means he's really smart) and has a legislative practice for financially oriented trade associations such as the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers and the Financial Services Roundtable. In the rare event that Scott gets stumped by a legal question, he just consults his all-knowing Magic 8-Ball.


Here's how Scott broke it down for us:  The lobbying reform packaged passed by the Democratic Congress prohibits members and their staffs from receiving any gifts at all from registered lobbyists, and any gifts of more than $50 from non-lobbyists (up to $100 aggregate per year). There are loopholes, of course—this is Congress we're talking about. One of the 24 exceptions to the gift ban is a "friend exception," but even those gifts are capped at $250.00. And if you've been to a jewelry store in the last half century, you know that won't cover a diamond ring. For anything over the $250.00 price, the recipient needs permission from an Ethics Committee.


Scott came to Steptoe in early 2007, where he now joins Rich Verma, former Senior Counsel to Sen. Reid, and former Sen. Bennett Johnston. Of course, neither of them has a Jim-Brown-autographed Cleveland Browns helmet in his office.


So Hill staffers are now buzzing over the question:  Do I really need to get permission from an ethics board to get engaged?  By the letter of the law, Scott says they do. And we haven't even touched on the "raging debate" over what constitutes finger food. (Under the law, members of Congress can't accept free invites to receptions offering anything more substantial than "finger food." We can't wait for the Supreme Court opinion on whether jumbo shrimp or puffed mushroom pastries qualify.) Scott expects the engagement matter to get addressed at some point, but until then it could cause headaches for besotted couples around DC.

Note to Hillary's campaign:  this legislative muddle is found in a law that Barack Obama helped author.  We're suggesting a new ad linking him to "Diamond-gate"!

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