It’s Tuesday afternoon at the Ohio Clock, an ornate, 11-foot case clock that resides in the hallway near the entrance to the Senate floor.
Because it’s Tuesday and the senators have just completed their separate Democratic and Republican lunches, the clock is the meeting point for modern Senate procedure: the bitter dueling press conferences at which lawmakers stand in front of a phalanx of microphones and tell the press why they’re right and the other side is wrong and at which they acknowledge, week after week, that a major piece of legislation is all but doomed.
The Senate is talking about the highway bill today, “and that’s certainly important to the future of the country,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says. But McConnell and his GOP colleagues don’t want to talk about roads. They want to talk about exploring for domestic oil and about why they think President Obama is one big liberal failure. Even worse, Senator John Cornyn tells the reporters, Obama is making Americans suffer on purpose.
“Looking at all the evidence on energy prices,” Cornyn says, “it would be hard to reach any other conclusion than that high gas prices are exactly part of the President’s plan.”
Minutes after the Republican senators leave, their Democratic colleagues appear. Harry Reid looks exasperated—as he usually does on Tuesdays at this time. The highway bill is being held up, Reid complains, because Republicans are trying to add an amendment that would allow employers to deny contraceptive coverage in health-care plans.
“It’s hard to understand why our Republican colleagues think this deserves to be debated,” Reid says, his soft tones failing to mask his annoyance. He goes on to define the question as “extreme and divisive,” accusing the Republican leader of “reviving the culture wars.”
Their separate press conferences concluded, the senators go back to their separate offices.
The second floor of the Capitol has become a weapon-free war zone, an area where senators and House members spin reporters before filing in and out of the chamber to vote and to speak—not with but at one another.
In the Senate, lawmakers decamp to the LBJ Room or the Mansfield Room for party caucuses at which they plot against the other side. On the House side, members walk in and out of the chamber through doors at opposite ends of the Speaker’s Lobby, rarely mingling. Even the terrace off the lobby, a place where members go to smoke and get away from reporters, is a site of de facto segregation, with Republicans puffing away on the right side of the balcony, Democrats on the left.
And getting a bipartisan drink together after votes? Yeah, right.
The Hill is a painfully sober environment nowadays—and that doesn’t refer just to the grim faces of representatives and senators. Democrats and Republicans don’t work together anymore, and a big part of the reason, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted at this year’s Gridiron Dinner, is that they don’t drink together anymore.
All kinds of socializing are on the wane, but alcohol has taken a special hit, with concerns about both health and public image making Congress members less likely to imbibe in public—or at all. If a member takes a break from the floor, it’s more likely to go to the gym than to a fellow lawmaker’s office for a beer. Only one new-member reception in the House served beer and other alcohol after the 2010 elections, author Robert Draper reports in his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do. Even the cochair of the Congressional Wine Caucus, Dan Lungren, doesn’t drink.
Far be it from us to advocate unhealthy or reckless behavior, but in this divisive era, lawmakers need to spend more time together to hear and understand one another. Couldn’t a little more bipartisan alcohol lubricate the process?
Booze once flowed far more freely in the Capitol.
In the mid-20th century, the Senate featured a so-called Key Club on the second floor of the Capitol, where senators with a key would pop in and partake of the liquor and mixers kept in a small refrigerator.
The club was just for Democrats, but plenty of bipartisan imbibing took place elsewhere. The Secretary of the Senate had a bar in his office, where even staff could grab a glass of bourbon. The Ohio Clock—where modern enmity unfolds—was reportedly a receptacle for bottles of booze during the 1950s (not put there for senators, as is commonly thought, but more likely by reporters, the Senate historian notes). And until the temperance movement put the pressure on, the Senate floor featured decanters of whiskey—one on the Democratic side, one on the Republican—and lawmakers could pour themselves a belt while conducting business.
Prohibition didn’t stop the drinking. The famed Man in the Green Hat brought contraband hooch to the Hill, making some 25 deliveries a day and concealing the bottles in a sturdy leather briefcase. Capitol police knew the man, George Cassiday, and allowed him unfettered access to the Capitol, day and night, until an unsympathetic Capitol Police officer blew the whistle.
On the House side, members could grab a drink in the “Board of Education,” the hideway office in which Speaker Sam Rayburn hosted colleagues. Not only were relationships fostered in the room, but history unfolded there. One day in 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman arrived to talk politics, only to be greeted by Rayburn with an urgent message. The White House press secretary had called, and Truman was to return to the White House as quickly and quietly as possible. Truman complied and was told Franklin Roosevelt was dead, making Truman commander-in-chief.
Slightly off campus, lawmakers, lobbyists, and zipped-lipped journalists hung out at the Monocle restaurant or at the Carroll Arms hotel. The Carroll Arms was where some members lived while looking for more permanent digs, but more commonly it was a place where people drank. A lot.
The now-demolished D Street building was the central relaxation place after a tough day on the Hill. One of its most popular waitresses, Flo Black, would look skeptically at anyone who made the mistake of ordering a Coke. “This is no drugstore,” Black would scold in her Southern drawl. “We only serve drinks here.” On the second floor was the more exclusive Quorum Club, where lawmakers and lobbyists drank, played poker, and negotiated.
“You saw not only senators there but your staff colleagues, though you might have been fighting with them all day. And that’s one of the differences I see in the Senate then and the Senate today—there was a camaraderie; though you could disagree, there was a great deal of integrity in your disagreement.”
Those words came from Roy L. Elson, who’d served as an administrative assistant to Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona from 1955 to 1969. Elson, in an interview with the Senate historian, was bemoaning how the social relationships among lawmakers had deteriorated.
“There wasn’t a lot of dishonesty or lying to you, or misleading you,” Elson said. “You fought fair-and-square for the most part. After you might have lost a legislative battle, you’d meet over at the Carroll Arms and have a drink and laugh about it.”
That interview was conducted in 1990. And in the 20-plus years since, the situation has only gotten worse.