In the Washington Post's K Street section, Jeffrey Birnbaum entertainingly describes a new wrinkle in D.C. courtship:
But one expert, Darryl D. Nirenberg of Patton Boggs, has researched a particularly knotty situation and believes it may change Washington's dating rituals forever.I haven't been able to quickly turn up the text of the Congressional ethics law in question, but if it is similar to New York State's, the engagement ring or any other gift shouldn't be a problem unless it is reported as a business expense. A lobbying firm can deduct the expenses that are part of its business, and thus one ought to be able to distinguish between an expensive meal that is bought for an aide in order to further one's lobbying interests (tax-deductible yet impermissible) and one that is bought for an aide in order to further one's romantic interests (not a business expense and therefore OK). Otherwise there would have to be severe policing of all lobbyist-Senate interactions; someone who works as a lobbyist couldn't even give a Senate aide who is the best friend of the lobbyist's daughter's a wedding gift.
The ethics law bars lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers or their aides. What happens, then, if a lobbyist wants to give a staffer a very special gift -- an engagement ring? Is that allowed?
No, it's not, Nirenberg says. But that's not the end of the story. A senator can grant a waiver of the gift ban, subject to review by the ethics committee. In the House, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct can waive the rule, and does so routinely.
"So, if you want to give your girlfriend who works in the Senate an engagement ring, you are going to have to ask permission from not only her father, but also from her senator, and maybe from the ethics committee, too," Nirenberg says.
Now that's what I call congressional privilege!