The Capitol Hill Freeloading Zone : Politics: Hungry legislative staffers have a lot on their plates at lobbyists’ receptions.
For one mouthwatering moment, Kirk Cartozian thought he had arrived in finger-food heaven. There he was on Capitol Hill, among the hungry hordes attending a reception thrown by some California fresh chicken group.
The lobbyists wanted to show lawmakers what a fresh chicken really tastes like, versus the rival frozen birds. And while Cartozian is no lawmaker--just a 20-year-old unpaid summer intern for Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach)--he was ready to offer, free of charge, his well-honed chicken-tasting expertise.
And all around him, chicken to die for.
“Tables of the best-tasting, juiciest, most succulent chicken you could imagine--and every last bit of it was filet--not a bone in sight,” said the Long Beach resident.
“I didn’t care about the fresh chicken debate but I was hungry. It was pure freeloading. I ate chicken until I couldn’t touch another piece. Then I brought four pounds back to the office.”
Whoever said there is no free lunch never worked on Capitol Hill, which is among the last truly “Eat Free” zones in America. It’s the home of the gratis breakfast, lunch and dinner, featuring free booze by the caseload, free Swedish meatballs and artichoke dip, free crab cakes and carrot pasta, free shrimp souffle and tarragon chicken salad--all compliments of some lobbyist group or another angling for the attention of influential Washington politicians.
Each week, especially in the spring and summer, receptions hosted by obscure or mighty special interests fill Capitol Hill meeting rooms with lobbyists rubbing forks with low-level aides, high-falutin legislative staffers and policy-makers, even lawmakers themselves.
On the reception circuit, the common thread often isn’t an interest in any cause or issue. It’s pure appetite.
Greeting all comers are the smiling lobbyists--men and women with large name tags, eager to please, refill a drink, summon a new tray of food--often in no rush to check a guest’s credentials.
The freeloading crowd knows this. Scores of Capitol Hill staffers--an army of unpaid interns and underpaid clerical workers--wander the bowels of the Rayburn and Cannon House office buildings, young sharks alert to the scent of a free feed.
Come evening, they go in search of receptions thrown by the Wiping Cloth Manufacturers Assn., Woodcutters Institute, Amusement Machine Manufacturers Assn. and American Council of Shopping Centers.
While most events are intended for lawmakers and top aides, many Capitol Hill offices trade reception schedules like stock tips. Bosses often send in their places junior staffers, who spread the word to friends in other offices.
The trick, interns say, is to arrive early. Receptions start at 5 p.m. sharp and the free food and booze are gone an hour later. Said Cartozian: “The idea is to hit two or three. The reception circuit is like bar cruising. Only it’s free.”
Erik Nasarenko, a junior staffer for Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson, (D-Woodland Hills), is a sage reception hopper who knows his favorites.
“The Dairy Assn. has chefs who make these great omelets to order,” said the 24-year-old Woodland Hills native. While eating, Nasarenko sometimes picks up a date--a young, single “Hill rat” like himself out for a good time.
“My favorite was a Family Planning Assn. event,” Nasarenko recalled fondly. “Not only did they have Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, they had great beer. We’re talking Heineken. No Bud. No Busch. No Miller Lite.”
Even as lawmakers this year try to reduce the influence of lobbyists through bills such as the Lobbying Reform and Gift Disclosure Act, Capitol Hill insiders say the reception circuit will survive unscathed.
The bill would prohibit lobbyists--but not the specific groups they represent--from sponsoring such events. While the number of receptions might dwindle, insiders say it wouldn’t be by much.
“Nobody’s worried about the receptions,” said one House subcommittee staffer. “Most people see them as work rather than fun. You’re subjected to these boring pitches. Anyway, I can’t imagine any lawmaker’s position being influenced by a couple of greasy hors d’oeuvres.”
Some say that outlawing receptions would drain Capitol Hill of its culinary lifeblood. “I went to these things for years, and let me tell you, the issues are completely irrelevant,” said one former congressional staffer. “I went. I ate. I had a good time.
“I’m a sociable guy, but when I’d walk into a reception I wouldn’t want to talk. I’d zero in on the best food and just stand there, shamelessly eating--not coming up for air.
“I’d look around and see other people doing exactly the same thing. And I’d say, ‘Go ahead, brother. Chow down.’ ”
Margaret Um, an intern in Horn’s office, said food isn’t always the goal at receptions. She bases her attendance on the issue involved. Sometimes, it pays off in other ways. At one reception by a group opposing the use of animals in laboratory tests, she received free perfume researched through chemical, not animal, techniques.
For novices, receptions provide an entree into the bounties of Capitol Hill. Veterans, however--who may have risen to salary levels where freeloading is less tempting--are embarrassed that they ever frequented the circuit, saying they now prefer to go home, walk their dog--even cook their own dinner.
“They get real boring,” said Mickey Pollock, an aide to Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale). “You see the same people, eat the same things. After a while, it just becomes this routine of dressed-up finger food and small talk.
“Anyway, you can only eat so many weenies on a toothpick before you either go out of your mind or gain 20 pounds.”
Nasarenko has his own version of the pilgrim’s progress. “First you hit the reception circuit. Then you grow up.”
When it comes to shameless reception freeloading on Capitol Hill, Russell Batson wrote the booklet.
The former congressional aide has compiled helpful hints gleaned from years of crashing hundreds of receptions in his 32-page “Eat Free in DC: A Guide to Budget-Neutral Dining.”
He rates the best and worst Capitol Hill receptions, from the dizzying heights of the Louisiana Congressional Delegation party and its alligator in piquant sauce and giant shrimp, to the lowly hot dogs served by the American Council of Shopping Centers.
“You can eat like Elvis without spending a dime,” Batson wrote in the popular booklet, which sells for $5.95. “What a country!”
Batson tells how to confront occasional door security. There are even grazing tips for the stand-up reception scene, such as the one-handed plate stack where you use your drink tumbler to support your plate, leaving the other hand free to work the fork.
“I was pleased to see Bill Clinton using this technique,” Batson wrote, “a testament to its efficiency and capacity to provide an uninterrupted flow of very large volumes of food.”
After consuming oceans of cream sauces and dips himself, Batson says the book was a natural. “I got into this conversation once about whether you could eat free every night and decided you could--with a little bit of ingenuity.”
And then there are the food-mooching war stories.
“The legendary figure is Strom Thurmond,” Batson said. “He’s well-known for making a beeline to the jumbo shrimp, stuffing his pockets full.”
Batson also has a tip on how to avoid lobbyists at receptions. “These selfish individuals will attempt to interrupt your feeding frenzy to discuss legislation,” he wrote.
“If approached, try ‘signing,’ making frequent gestures to your food and sweeping motions in their direction. If all else fails, remember it is their food; listen to their pitch, nod and say, ‘Good point.’ ”
But reception freeloading has its dangers. “There have been buffet tables where I was afraid of losing a finger,” Batson said. “So many forks, all working at once.”
The mango chutney coating the coconut shrimp glistened greasily under the direct ceiling light, bending Mark Brasher’s mouth into a frown of distaste.
Brasher, a 27-year-old legislative aide to Rep. Horn, was doing the shake-and-bake--Capitol slang for shaking hands and freeloading food--at an event sponsored by the Food Distribution Industry.
For years, the former Long Beach resident lived the reception life before settling into semi-retirement, choosing only the most promising affairs.
Before him, on a table adorned with a massive flower arrangement, lay a spread of miniature pastry puffs with tarragon chicken salad, cherry tomatoes stuffed with tuna-caper mousse. There were chicken tenders with Dijonnaise sauce, miniature quiche tartlets and mushrooms stuffed with crab souffle.
“Average at best,” he sniffed, moving his toothpick toward the stuffed mushrooms. “You’d think they’d do better. It’s oily fat food. I mean, how long can you go on eating this?”
All around him, in the carpeted conference room lined by state flags in the basement of the Capitol, half a dozen members of Congress, staffers and a bevy of food distribution lobbyists were doing just fine scarfing down everything within their reach.
People push for second and third helpings. One man balances two plates, a wineglass and beer can, knowing he has to work fast. With the reception an hour old, the food and the crowd are thinning.
Brasher has little patience for such scenes.
While he stomachs the annual ice cream manufacturer’s reception, considered a must-attend event across Capitol Hill, he draws the line at the Southern watermelon growers’ bash, where scantily clad young beauty queens compete in a seed-spitting contest.
“It’s a humiliating spectacle,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘How could they do that?’ ”
The purpose of this night’s event is to award several congressmen pewter statues to signify their work on issues dear to the industry.
And, of course, to eat.
Two women sneaking nibbles from their plastic plates say the tales of sumptuous food and wild reception parties are overblown. “People tell tall tales,” says Charla Worsham. “Most of these things involve stale chips and sauce.”
Bending low over the quiche tart tray, Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) says such receptions serve a good purpose.
“Before I was a congressman, I used to come here to lobby for the POW-MIA cause. I had five little kids all under 10 years old and I was on a budget,” he recalls.
“So I skipped breakfast and lunch and chowed down on The Hill at night. But it’s where I conducted most of my business. I knew it’s where I could find the congressmen.”
He directs a listener to the shrimp tray, saying lobbyist receptions save taxpayer money. “We work our young staffers hard, late into the night, past the times restaurants close. So they come down here, get their energy levels up and come back to work.”
This is the kind of talk lobbyists like to hear.
“There are lots of underpaid staff here for free food--it’s a fact of life,” says Chris Galen, a food distribution spokesman, pointing to a $6,000 reception bill.
“There’s not much we can do. This is a goodwill reception. We want to keep our congressmen happy. Part of that job is keeping their staffs happy as well.”
Perhaps the most fascinating spectacle amid the feeding frenzy is the performance put on by freeloaders trying to escape the lobbyists’ sales pitch.
The message-bearers are often inescapable, and can sometimes bring a blush of shame to the cheek of even the most dedicated freeloader.
“I had this one buzz-killing experience I’ll never forget,” recalled one reception hopper. “I was at this reception for the National Head Injury Foundation, scarfing down good food when out comes this guy in a wheelchair.
“You could tell he used to be real sharp and they wheeled him over and started talking policy and funding. And I said to myself, ‘Oh, jeez. This is bad. I can’t listen to this. I’m just a freeloader.’ ”