Federal Lobbying Laws/IRS Regulations Governing Political Activity
Washington, D.C., is a political town. Georgetown faculty, staff, and students are involved citizens and may engage in politics, lobbying on issues of concern, and similar endeavors. Not surprisingly, however, there are a number of federal, state and local laws that regulate both the activities of Georgetown, as an institution, and its faculty, staff and students.
As we enter into another election season in which there is considerable interest, it’s a good time to bring you up to date on new aspects of the federal lobbying disclosure laws and to remind you of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules governing political activities on campus. There are several resources to which you can turn should you have questions. Georgetown University’s Office of Federal Relations (OFR) has responsibility for the filing of federal lobbying disclosure forms, and the Office of Tax and Asset Management has responsibility for ensuring compliance with IRS requirements. Both offices work closely with the Office of Compliance and Ethics and the Office of University Counsel on compliance issues.
- Katy Button, Office of Federal Relations
- James E. Ward, Office of Compliance and Ethics
- and Office of University Counsel
- John Kotwicki, Office of Tax and Asset Management
Lobby Disclosure Reports must be filed quarterly. These reports are required to reflect all federal lobbying activity by the University, including by faculty and staff, and federal lobbying activity conducted by external lobbyists that relates to the University. In addition, the University must calculate the proportion of Georgetown-paid memberships in organizations that lobby and reflect that in these reports. While OFR keeps records of the time of faculty and staff who are involved in lobbying in which OFR is also involved, to ensure that the Lobby Disclosure Reports are accurate, faculty and staff involved in lobbying the Congress or the Administration on University-related issues need to be in contact with Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Katy Button no later than the 10th day of the first month of each calendar quarter, i.e., April 10, July 10, October 10, and January 10, so that those activities are appropriately reflected in the reports.
(Keep in mind that the Office of Federal Relations is available as a resource to you when you have concerns regarding federal legislation relating to the University, but that this reporting requirement does not extend to contacts you may have had with Congressional offices or Administration officials on matters of personal interest to you and that are not in any way related to the University.)
Please note that disclosure rules also require semiannual reports on political contributions of registered lobbyists and of contributions to certain events such as funds paid for an event to honor or recognize a covered official or to entities that are named for a covered official. Disclosure reports are due on a semiannual basis (July 30 and January 30). If you have any questions about whether you or your school or department may have made such contributions or participated in an event requiring disclosure, please contact OFR well prior to these dates.
For purposes of completing the IRS Form 990 report (prepared by the Office of Tax and Asset Management), similar information must be maintained and reported regarding federal, state and/or local lobbying activities. The 990 is filed on an annual basis and contains information gathered from the quarterly Lobby Disclosure Reports, and both University employees and external lobbyists who engaged in state and /or local lobbying activities on behalf of Georgetown.
Congressional Gift Rules severely limit gifts given, and entertainment provided, to Members of Congress or their staffs. Since the University does have a registered federal lobbyist, these restrictions extend to all University faculty and staff. In general, Members of Congress or staff persons may not accept anything of value from anyone, whether the gift is personal or official, unless accepting the gift is allowed under specific exceptions. The exceptions include, among others:
- The Personal Friendship Exception covers gifts that are based on a long-standing personal friendship that is reflected in a pattern of previous reciprocal gift giving, the history of the relationship, and a pattern of similar gifts to other friends. In no instance should a gift given under this exception have been paid for by the University or written off as a business deduction. Furthermore, any gift over $250 must receive pre-clearance from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics or the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, even if it is given under this exception.
- The Widely Attended Event Exception, covers the offer of free attendance at events attended by at least 25 other individuals from throughout a given field or profession from the sponsor of the event. This exemption would not apply, for the most part, to an event that includes only persons from the Georgetown University community.
- The Charity Events Exception, for 170(c)(3) organizations covers invitations for free attendance at charity events from the sponsoring organization.
- The Educational Events Exception, covers invitations to educational events by university or other non-profit sponsors, including university-sponsored lectures, seminars, or discussion groups, but excluding presentations by lobbyists.
Still permitted are “food and refreshments of nominal value offered other than as part of a meal” (e.g. coffee, tea, bagels, pastries, “standing up foods” like light hors d’oeuvres), books and informational materials or special plaques or awards.
There are also rules limiting privately-funded travel, but a special rule exists for higher education institutions. If a circumstance were to arise where you might be contemplating covering travel costs for a Member of Congress or their staff, please be in touch in advance with OFR to determine if it is permissible.
The Internal Revenue Code prohibits the University from engaging directly or indirectly in any partisan political campaign activity or supporting any such activity. Partisan “political campaign activity” is, essentially, the support of or opposition to a candidate for public office at the federal, state or local level even if the candidate is not affiliated with a political party. To maintain adherence to this prohibition, the following guidelines govern the University faculty and staff (“employee” or “employees”) in their relation to political activities. However, nothing in these guidelines prohibits University faculty or staff from participating in political activity in their individual capacity separate from their relationship to the University. Furthermore, there is no restriction of the discussion of political issues or the teaching of political techniques, nor are academic endeavors that address public policy issues affected.
- The name, the seal, logos and other depictions of the University or of any of its schools or other units may not be used on letters, communications or other materials, in whatever media expressed, intended for support of a political campaign on behalf of or against any candidate for political office, political party, or political action committee, including the solicitation of funds for such purpose or activities. This includes a prohibition on use of University letterhead, envelopes, email accounts, telephone, voicemail and other communication systems for such purposes.
- No University employee may state orally or in writing that they are speaking for or on behalf of the University when expressing support for or against a candidate for public office.
- No University office, and no employee’s office, may be used for political purposes, including as a return mailing address for the solicitation of funds for political campaigns on behalf of or against any candidate for public office or advocacy on behalf of or the solicitation of any endorsement of any candidate for public office, political party, or political action committee.
- University funds, supplies, e-mail lists and directories, copiers, computers, telephones, fax machines, or other equipment or other supplies may not be used on behalf of or against any candidate for public office, political party, or political action committee.
- No University funds may be used to support or oppose a political candidate, including the making of campaign contributions.
- University facilities (meeting rooms, lecture halls, “event” space, etc.) in general may not be used on behalf of or against any candidate for public office, political party, or political action committee. If a University facility is regularly made available to non-University groups, however, such facilities may be made available for political campaign activities if (a) the facility is provided on the same terms and conditions governing the use for purposes other than political campaign activities, (b) the facility is made available on an equal basis to other candidates, and (c) prior approval is granted from the Office of University Counsel and Office of Federal Relations.
- University web pages may not be used on behalf of or against any candidate for public office, political party or political action committee.
- No employee of the University may perform tasks in any way related to a political campaign, public office, political party or political action committee in her/his capacity as a University employee or during working hours.
Please don’t hesitate to be in touch with any of us as questions arise.