United States: A Question Of Ethics: May Former Staffers Discuss Legislation With Current Staffers?

Last Updated: January 19 2015
Article by C. Simon Davidson

Q. I have just completed more than a decade of service as a House staffer and am now preparing for a job in the private sector. I know there are rules about what I can and cannot do, and I am trying to make sure I understand them all. I am particularly concerned about restrictions on my communications with former staffers, as I have many friends on the Hill whom I am sure I will still often see. I know I can't lobby them during the cooling off period, but what if I run into some of them, we start talking shop, and they ask what I think about a proposed bill? Am I not allowed to answer?

A. It happens every two years. A host of new members and staffers arrive on the Hill, while a host of old ones move out. And, just as the newbies must quickly learn rules governing congressional employees, those moving into the private sector must familiarize themselves with the restrictions on former Hill staffers. There are many, so you are wise to be concerned.

The specific restrictions you've asked about apply during the "cooling-off period" and limit what members and staffers can do within one year of leaving the House. As you may know, the restriction does not apply to all staffers, only to those whose salary is at least 75 percent of members'. I'll presume this includes you, but mention it just in case.

Several activities are prohibited during the cooling-off period, including, for example, lobbying a federal official on behalf of a foreign government. Your question concerns the restriction on communications with members and staffers during the cooling-off period. It provides that you may not communicate or appear before any member, officer or employee of the House or Senate with the intent to influence, on behalf of any person, the official actions of the member, officer or employee. The restriction bars "certain types of contacts with certain categories of officials," says the House ethics manual, "basically former colleagues and those most likely to be influenced on the basis of the former position."

Last month, the House Committee on Ethics issued guidance on post-employment restrictions, clarifying what former staffers may and may not do during the cooling-off period. It cautions that the term "communication" is defined very broadly for purposes of the restrictions. Specifically, a communication is "the act of imparting or transmitting information with the intent that the information be attributed to the former official."

The memorandum also sets forth several helpful fact patterns. For example, suppose that during your cooling-off period you were to call a current member and request that she meet with one of your clients. This, the memorandum states, would violate the restriction even if you did not intend to be present at the requested meeting. The request itself, the guidance states, would be a communication intended to influence official action.

The guidance also includes an example addressing a circumstance similar to the one you raise. It concerns a former member who had become a lobbyist and was asked by a current member about the views of one of the lobbyist's clients on a pending piece of legislation. According to the ethics committee's guidance, the lobbyist may not respond by stating the client's views to the member. "There is no exception in the statute for covered communications that are solicited by a current Member or staff person," the guidance states. In other words, if a communication meets the definition of forbidden communications, it is illegal regardless of whether it came in response to a question by a member or staffer.

This raises an obvious question. During the cooling-off period, what can you say if a member or staffer asks for your client's views on pending legislation? The memorandum issued last month has an answer. "It may be permissible," the memorandum says, to refer the member or staffer to one of your colleagues who is not subject to post-employment restrictions.

By the way, I know you didn't ask about the penalties here, but they are worth mentioning as they are no small deal. A violation of the cooling-off period restrictions is a federal crime, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $50,000 fine. You're right to be careful.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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