In TV’s House of Cards, a fictional U.S. politician named Frank Underwood is often treated to pricey dinners at posh restaurants and given expensive gifts.
In the real-world United States, that would be corruption, plain and simple. And it would be illegal.
In the U.S., employees of the federal government — from President Obama to an entry-level worker — follow the same set of rules, and the penalties for breaking them are severe.
The limit on the value of gifts the president and first lady can receive from foreign entities is the same as for any other federal employee: $375. If the Obamas want to keep any gift worth more than that, they have to ask Congress to approve it (not very likely) or wait until the president leaves office and buy it with their own money at market value.
All the gifts given to the president worth more than $375 (and most of the ones worth less) are considered public property and are turned over to the National Archives. Each year the president and first lady must report every gift, who gave it, and how much the gift is worth.
The limit for gifts from U.S. citizens to government employees is even lower — just $20, and one source can’t give the same person gifts totaling more than $50 within a single year.
As for fancy meals, government workers have to buy their own. The governmentwide limit for free meals is the same as for gifts: $20. That won’t get you far in the kind of restaurant Frank Underwood frequents.
Government employees in the U.S. receive good benefits and fair pay. They don’t need to sell influence or accept valuable gifts. But if they do, punishment is strict. It can include both large fines and prison time. That’s because even the smallest instances of corruption undercut the public’s confidence in their government. As President Obama has said, “Corruption holds back every aspect of economic and civil life.”