(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Hey, don’t laugh. In the wonktastic world of congressional ethics rules — and in a town of big egos and strict protocol — titles are a major sticking point.

For the last two centuries, the traditional and most formal address for elected officials was “The Honorable,” which they were entitled to continue using for life. “Senator” and “Congressman” were job titles, only meant to be used while they held office.

But now — no one knows exactly why — using “Honorable” has become a problem. At issue are the fancy charitable galas that frequently ask lawmakers to lend their names to the cause.

A parade of “Honorables” in a detail taken from a recent invitation for a Mentor Foundation gala invitation. (Mentor Foundation USA)

Officially, members can’t use their position for private fundraising, but ethics watchdogs were typically okay with the practice as long as it was clear that it was Joe Politician-the-man, not Joe Politician-the-official who was invoked. So for years, we’ve seen them listed on invitations as “The Honorable Joe Politician.”

But in recent months, the House Ethics Committee has started warning members that the honorific is an official title — and thus an ethical breach.

But — and this is weird — being listed as “Senator,” “Representative,” or “Congressman” is perfectly fine, because those are considered “personal” titles.

Senate rules are slightly different: “Honorable” is fine — so long as it’s clear that the lawmaker isn’t personally hosting the event, and thus not susceptible to lobbyist largesse.

Now the preferred style, in the eyes of ethics rules-makers, is to sub out those “Honorables” for “Reps,” as on this invitation for last week’s Caron DC Recovery for Life Gala (Caron D.C.)

“There’s a difference between a rank and a role,” says Robert Hickey, deputy director at the Protocol School of Washington. “‘Honorable’ is a personal rank and continues with the person for life.” Politicians typically use their job titles so people know exactly what they are — or were. “Honorable ” is the proper title once they leave office, he says. So really we should be saying “the Honorable Bill Clinton” and “the Honorable Mitt Romney.” instead of “President Clinton” and “Governor Romney.”

Event planner Lynda Webster told us she would happily comply with any of the new rules. But, she said laughing, “Don’t we have more important things to do in Washington?”

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