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A hundred-year-old cabin in the Appalachian Mountains could raise conflict-of-interest questions if a House labor committee wades into ongoing questions surrounding the sharing economy.
House Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) owns the cabin, and it’s been listed for short-term rent on Airbnb, the online platform that lets users act as small-scale hoteliers. The one-bedroom lodge has been listed on the website since last fall, Foxx told Bloomberg BNA. It’s been rented out at least 16 times, according to the listing. Foxx added that she doesn’t personally run the operation.
“I’m not actually a host, my daughter is,” Foxx said. “We have a cabin we remodeled and couldn’t decide whether to rent it full-time, and somebody told my husband about Airbnb and he and my daughter looked into it. I really don’t have anything to do with our businesses because I don’t have the time, frankly.”
House ethics officials have cleared Foxx of any conflict-of-interest issues related to the rental, a Foxx spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA June 1. Ethics observers agreed that the situation isn’t likely a violation of conflict-of-interest rules, but they added that Foxx’s leadership role on a committee that could have a lot to say about how Airbnb is regulated makes for bad optics.
“The appearance of a lawmaker supporting, sponsoring or voting on something that has an impact on their personal financial interest certainly doesn’t reflect well on Congress, and it undermines the public belief that members are acting in the public’s interest,” Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, told Bloomberg BNA June 1.
“I wouldn’t say so,” Foxx said May 25 when asked if her involvement in Airbnb creates a conflict. “Again, all I do is celebrate the concept.”
A spokeswoman for Foxx June 1 reiterated that there is no conflict.
“As the House Ethics Committee and Bloomberg BNA have confirmed, there is absolutely no conflict of interest, and Chairwoman Foxx is proud to draw on her personal experience and serve on a committee that will continue to discuss ideas to empower all Americans to succeed in the workforce,” Workforce Committee spokesperson Bethany Aronhalt told Bloomberg BNA June 1. “Members of Congress come from all different backgrounds and have all sorts of experiences in our diverse economy, and this is no different. Any false and debunked claims that there is a conflict of interest here are frankly absurd.”
Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist for the nonprofit consumer rights group Public Citizen, said the situation may raise public concerns even if it doesn’t qualify as an ethics violation.
“This member should not be spearheading any legislation that is in the family’s financial interest,” he said. “I would recommend they recuse themselves on voting on anything of that effect.”
Foxx spoke about her openness to updating the Fair Labor Standards Act to better serve the sharing or gig economy during a May 4 speech in Washington, D.C., at the Consumer Technology Association’s “New Jobs Summit.”
As head of the Workforce Committee, Foxx may already be reviewing legislation to regulate the gig economy and could eventually vote on related laws. She joined Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, in a meeting with Airbnb and other gig economy businesses in California last month.
On-demand companies like Uber, Postmates, and Airbnb generally classify the people who offer services through their platforms as independent contractors. That means they’re exempt from protections such as minimum wage, overtime, and workers’ compensation.
Some of the companies have shown interest in legislation to address worker issues. Lawmakers from both parties have also talked in general terms about updating laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which offers minimum wages and overtime protections, to create a third category of worker.
Airbnb recently disclosed that it hired Meagan McCanna, a legislative aide for former House Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), to lobby Congress on labor issues.
“It’s important that federal policies do not limit innovation taking place or undermine the flexible work opportunities so many Americans now depend on—that’s why we need to take a close look at federal workforce policies,” Foxx said at the jobs summit. “The people in this room have more ideas than those in Washington,” she added.
Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas May 30 did not answer Bloomberg BNA’s question seeking specific labor-employment issues the company is lobbying. He emailed a written statement instead, saying Airbnb is “working to ensure lawmakers have the information they need about our platform and the benefits of home sharing for travelers and families.”
Asked by Bloomberg BNA if she receives income from the Airbnb listing, Foxx said “a tiny bit—my husband does. It’s not very much.”
Foxx did not disclose any income from the Airbnb rental in 2015, her most recent filing. Congressional disclosure rules require lawmakers to report their income and that of a spouse when they reach certain amounts. The most recent data is from 2015.
The general House conflict-of-interest rule is that “members can’t take actions that benefit them in kind of unique ways, but if they’re members of a group or a class of persons that might benefit then that in essence shields them” from a conflict of interest finding, attorney Leo Wise told Bloomberg BNA. Wise previously served as staff director and chief counsel at the OCE.
The general test is whether the benefit “is significant and uniquely held,” Fischer added.
For example, a member who is a bar owner could vote to repeal a ban on alcohol sales, Wise said. That’s because “while the legislation is undoubtedly to their benefit, they’re not the only bar owners in the country,” Wise said.
“The House has written the rules so that something like that would be permissible,” he said.
Both Wise and Fischer said the House conflict-of-interest policy is inefficient.
“The fact remains that Rep. Foxx would appear to benefit from legislation she may promote and that does not help promote trust in government,” Fischer said.
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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