Here is the scenario: You are planning an event where a variety of government officials and Congressional staff are on the invite list. You want them to have a memorable experience. Naturally, food and beverage service is part of your go-to event plan.
However, there are rules that must be followed when it comes to serving food to Senators and Congressional staff. Knowing these rules is crucial to your event success.
What you may see as a nice gesture to enhance the experience could easily be misconstrued as a gift by government definitions. That opens your invitees up to a variety of reporting requirements and grey areas of propriety that may incidentally violate the ethics’ rules. The fall out: they choose not to attend your event. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Food is considered a gift.
At the highest level, the Senate Code of Official Conduct defines the term, gift, as “any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value. The term includes gifts of services, training, transportation, lodging and meals, whether provided in kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred.”
Any meal of a $50 value, not to exceed $100 from a single source in a calendar year, is considered a gift. However, providing food and refreshments of a nominal value offered other than as part of a meal can be accepted without contributing to this cap. The Senate Code of Official Conduct states that “nominal value” in this case is $10 per person.
The best way to execute that is to serve canapes and bite-sized items that would not constitute a full meal, as well as excluding traditional utensils just to be safe. Pinwheels, small skewers or food served with pipettes, and stacked canapes of meats and cheeses are good options. Always stick to small plates and food that can be eaten at a high-top and your guests will be in the clear.
When planning the menu, keep in mind it is the Congressional staff, not the planner or caterer, who will be the affected negatively (think: negative PR, insinuation of accepting bribes, or loss of job) should protocol be broken.
2. Event timing needs to be specific.
Keep your timelines on the invitation set and exceedingly clear. It is better to say the event is “5:00 to 7:00 p.m.” instead of “The event starts at 5:00 p.m.” Open ended invitations can be seen as toeing the line of what would be “refreshments of a nominal value” and a meal.
In addition to set time limits, stage your event at non-meal times to further manage guest expectations for the type and amount of food that will be offered. For instance, a 10:30 a.m. to noon event or 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. event will immediately indicate the type of menu (if any) offered to anyone concerned about the gift cap.
3. The demographic of your guest list is important.
As long as you have at least 25 or more people attending who do not work on the Hill then it can be considered a widely attended event and food restrictions open up a bit. For an invite only guest list of 50 or less people, food service should not be part of the plan. Congressional staff may come in an official capacity to represent their office, however they will not be consuming any food or drink in an effort to avoid toeing the regulatory lines.
The bottom line: invite more than 50 people, including 25 non-government employees, or skip the F&B and focus your time on the programming.
"If you are a new caterer looking to break into government events, the first step would be to partner with an existing company that knows the protocol. Utilize the Ethics Committee as a resource as you learn the ropes and focus on larger association events hosted at venues off Capitol Hill."
4. Hire companies that are used to catering government events, or vet new vendors thoroughly.
It may be tempting to go with a newly discovered or highly recommended caterer. However, if they have not previously worked on government events, they may not be fluent in the protocol to follow. By hiring a company with this past experience, you inherently gain another checkpoint while planning. Menu and serving mistakes will be reduced significantly when there is another party familiar with the rules involved.
If you are a new caterer looking to break into government events, the first step would be to partner with an existing company that knows the protocol. Utilize the Ethics Committee as a resource as you learn the ropes and focus on larger association events hosted at venues off Capitol Hill.
Additionally, these are questions to ask any caterer when congressional staff will be in attendance:
A) Do you have set seasonal menus or are you open to customizations in menu planning?
B) What is minimum food order requirement?
C) What alternative utensil options do you have?
Whether the caterer is experienced or new to the government arena, I would also insist on a pre-service meeting with their entire staff to review the rules for service. Come prepared with a plan on how waitstaff should handle any requests for utensils, larger plates, or other potentially rule-violating situations that arise.
5. Use the Ethics Committee as a resource.
I highly recommend you always contact the Ethics Office for approval before you finalize your catering order. This is especially important if it is a new event or a new element is being added to an annual one.
Getting confirmation that you are within the boundaries of protocol beforehand will reduce the likelihood for any unintentional mistakes and the regulatory cleanup of said errors. You will also be more at ease as RSVPs come in knowing that invitees are below the “gift cap” requirement, which they are educated on during ethics training sessions.