Capitol Hill’s Unusual Food Customs

An anthropological eye on Washington, D.C.’s native Animalia Politicus species will see that for centuries its most fascinating rituals related to eating. “Political parties” used to evoke more RSVPs than derisive groans back when bipartisan fetes were an art form.

Then the rules of the jungle started changing. In the past few decades the crusade to tighten lobbying gift restrictions shut down titillating three-martini caviar dinners and boats-for-votes St. Barth’s lobster junkets designed to buy Congresspeople’s and staffers’ favor. Ridding the animal kingdom of fatcat lobbyists who survive not on the strength of their cause but the size of their expense account is a generally accepted good thing, and the rules have mostly forced that species into extinction.

But rules have become so tight sometimes they throw the burrata out with the whey.  Trace the steady breakdown in bipartisanship alongside the breakdown of substantial Capitol Hill food gatherings on the same graph and it’s hard to claim coincidence—those who work on socially isolated Capitol Hill need spaces to gather and talk in the early evening, which is sometimes only halfway through their long days.

Photo of a reception

Photograph courtesy AFGE

Curious political food customs reach their height this time of year, when elections and holiday parties move fast upon the nation’s capital. Prohibited gifts include (but are not limited to) anything of monetary value, including food given because of the employee’s official capacity. The “Reception Exception,” recognizes the need for socializing by allowing Congressional employees to attend an event—as long as a meal is not served.

That last part—when a meal is served—is where the fun interpretation happens. After all, after the six-small-meals-a-day trend, what is a meal? But thankfully for we grazers the limit isn’t on how much you can eat—it’s on what kind of food constitutes a meal.

This is my kind of diet. Thirty meatballs isn’t a meal, but a large salad is. What creates a meal also depends on where it’s eaten: If you’re on the Senate side of Congress, a hot dog doesn’t usually count as a meal (it depends on the circumstances) but on the House of Representatives side of Congress a hot dog is a meal. But a pig in a blanket isn’t. The House and Senate Ethics Committees have different interpretations of the rules, so entire legal practice areas exist to ensure that public servants don’t accept unethical types or amounts of food.

Photo of congressman at a reception

Photograph courtesy AFGE

Hosts can’t serve a food “luxury item” but if the organization hosting the event promotes good food, should that make a difference? You can’t very well force the Champagne lobby to serve Cava.

Reception hosts send menus to Congressional Ethics committees well in advance of a party so invitations can state that food has been pre-reviewed (which is actually no guarantee that the food is ethically not a gift, because the host might inadvertently serve a non-meal food in a way that makes it a meal). The Ethics Committees also proactively release memos every year reminding staffers of the rules.

It’s even harder for Presidential administration employees, who usually must receive preapproval from their department’s ethics counsel for each event they want to attend. And few people want to be the guy in the office who goes to a lawyer four times a week for party advice.

I suppose someone could just host a reception that doesn’t fit the ethics rules and expect staffers to attend and write a check for their share of the food, which is acceptable under the rules but in practice not something staffers, who are short on time, money, and attention, usually do.

The chilling effect this has on socializing in the nation’s capitol is marked and a factor in the crumbling of Hill civility and compromise. Because breaking bread together is foundational to breaking down barriers, even when it’s artisanal loaf shared in a room with lobbyists who advocate for, say, endangered animals or oil drilling.

Photo of a Congressional reception

Photograph courtesy AFGE

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