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Gift giving happens, but public officials really need to say ‘no, thanks’

The Framers included the Emoluments clause along with other regulations to limit foreign influence upon our government. Ilhan Omar’s acceptance of the Qatar travel is a perfect example of exactly what the Framers feared.


U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar was wrong to accept a gift from the Qatar government to attend the women’s World Cup. But it is equally wrong for U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber to travel to Spain funded by Franklin Center for Global Policy Exchange, a nonprofit. It was also wrong for U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Angie Craig to take trips to Israel, funded by the American Israel Education Foundation. And it is wrong for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to have accepted all the trips and gifts he did.

In all these cases elected or appointed officials took gifts from foreign governments, interest groups, or individuals or entities who wanted to influence their decisions or might have  business before them.  This is a problem and federal law ought to prohibit such gift giving or practices.

Gift giving is a wonderful act among personal friends. But gift giving in professional settings is problematic. Many professions prohibit it. Attorneys may not accept gifts from clients, nor may doctors, accountants, police officers and most other professions including journalists. In the state of Minnesota,  Minnesota Statute  §43A.38 prohibits the acceptance of gifts by members of the executive branch, and Minnesota Statute §10.A.071significantly regulates lobbyist gifts to state legislators and their staff. There are several reasons why.

One, there is what I call the Santa Claus problem. Everyone likes Santa because he brings us presents.  Studies have shown that gifts, no matter how small, bias our thinking and lead us to favor the gift giver consciously or unconsciously. Restaurants love giving free meals to police, for example. It gives them free protection or security with a police car parked outside. But it also creates a problem where perhaps in a pinch when there is a call from two restaurants  needing an emergency call, one which offers free  meals and the other not, where will the police go to first?

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Gift giving simply creates a real conflict of interest where a professional places their own private  interest ahead of serving the public good.

Giving gifts additionally creates an expectation that a gratuity will be paid to receive service. There is thus a fine line between giving a gift and paying a bribe.

Even if  not a real conflict of interest, gift giving raises the issue of the appearance of conflict of interest.  Americans distrust government and feel that elected officials are more likely to listen to donors and interest groups than to the voters or the people themselves. Acceptance of gifts such as what Omar and others did only feeds into that distrust. We do not know if a decision reached was the product of independence or was the result of the gift and undue influence.

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David Schultz
For Omar, accepting a gift from a country with a questionable record on human rights to attend the World Cup raises a host of questions about the purpose of the trip and the ability of her to credibly criticize Qatar about its treatment of people. If Omar wants to travel to Qatar to watch the World Cup, pay for it yourself like the rest of us. If she wants to do official business, ask the U.S. and not a foreign government to pay her expenses. The same is true for Stauber, Smith, and Craig.

But there is an  additional problem with elected officials taking gifts from foreign governments, it is called the Emoluments clause.

The Foreign Emoluments Clause (art. I, § 9, cl. 8) states “[N]o Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”  The Emoluments clause became famous while Donald J. Trump was president and there was concern he was accepting gifts from Russia or other foreign governments.  There were legitimate concerns here that these gifts to Trump’s businesses impacted his judgment as president.

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The Constitutional Framers were fearful of foreign influence and intrigue upon public officials. That is  why they included the Emoluments clause along with other regulations to limit foreign influence upon our government. Omar’s acceptance of the Qatar travel is a perfect example of exactly what the Framers feared. Foreign governments, whether friend or foe, should not sway the judgments of American officials.

Public officials should not be allowed to accept trips or gifts like Omar did.  It should be illegal as a matter of policy to ensure that they place the interests of the people ahead of either special  interests or foreign governments.

David Schultz is Hamline University Distinguished Professor of Political Science.