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A Modest Proposal To Fix Washington: Bring Back the Booze

In this divisive era, couldn’t a little more bipartisan alcohol help?

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

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.

Lawmakers, lobbyists, and journalists used to hang out together at the Monocle on Capitol Hill. Photograph by Steve Szabo/Getty Images.

Why the shift? Health and modern mores, for one—the three-martini lunch died decades ago, replaced by chomping salad in a carryout container while answering e-mail. Television has had a particular impact. Before 1979 in the House and 1986 in the Senate, floor proceedings weren’t televised. C-SPAN brought Congress into America’s living rooms, and lawmakers, conscious of looking young and healthy, responded by getting themselves to the gym instead of the bar.

Lawmakers’ modern schedules—in which they head back home from Thursday or early Friday until Tuesday—discourage them from spending time together, laments Congressman Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat. “There are people in this House who don’t say hello to people on the other side of the House,” Pascrell says, because they don’t know them as anything besides a member of the opposition.

And public perceptions have made lawmakers and others skittish about being seen with a drink in hand.

Stan Collender, a former staffer for both the House and Senate budget committees and now a partner at Qorvis Communications, found himself on the shortlist to be director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration. Collender’s early move, after learning he was under consideration for such a high-profile job? Telling his wife that if they went out to dinner, he couldn’t even enjoy a glass of wine. “Someone’s going to take a shot of me with a drink in my hand and my head back, and it’ll be over,” he told her.

True, some lawmakers have been embarrassed by reports of merrymaking after hours. Former New York congressman John E. Sweeney got in trouble in 2006 after he was photographed at a frat party in a neighboring congressional district. He lost his race and later was jailed for driving while intoxicated (the second infraction in less than 18 months). Another member retired in early 2005 after she fell drunk into an escalator on Capitol Hill, missing an important tax vote.

But Congress members now say they’re worried that any imbibing at all will be caught by a cell-phone camera or blogger and used to characterize lawmakers as a bunch of do-nothing drunks.

And what about heading to a holiday party or reception? Go at your peril: House speaker John Boehner—who arguably deserved to unwind with an adult beverage after wrangling with the Tea Party faction of his caucus all year—arrived at the US Chamber of Commerce Christmas party last December only to be greeted by jeering Occupy demonstrators, who huddled under a red “99 percent” carpet and invited guests to walk all over them.

Stringent ethics rules have a party- dampening effect as well. Eager to counter impressions—correct or not—of lawmakers fiddling around at fancy dinners while voters burn with resentment, Congress has approved increasingly restrictive rules about what lawmakers and staff can accept—and from whom. Officials and their staff are barred from receiving any gifts at all, even pizza, from a lobbyist or someone who employs a lobbyist or lobbying firm.

Members and staffers can go to a “widely attended reception” but only if the fare consists of hors d’oeuvres and not a full dinner. The event must be related to the member’s or staffer’s official duties and be attended by at least 25 nonofficial guests. (Don’t even think of counting congressional or staff spouses as civilians.) And just in case someone had hopes of enjoying such an event, the House Ethics Committee’s guidebook sternly notes: “An event may not be merely for the personal pleasure or entertainment of the Member or staff person.”

In other words, you can consume small amounts of food and drink, but you may not have fun.

The caterers do their best to serve food that can be eaten with one’s fingers while standing. It’s common to see clam chowder in a miniature cup (no spoons means it’s not really a “meal”), and skewers are a popular way of eliminating the need for a fork. Still, many lawmakers are nervous about being photographed sipping a plastic cup of wine while on the job—and members of Congress are always “on the job” when they’re on the Hill.

It used to be that at receptions “you could rub elbows or a little work would get done,” says Representative Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Now there’s no opportunity to really get to know each other.”

When he was mayor of Somerville, Capuano recalls, he would sometimes have lunch with his wife. On one occasion, he sipped a beer while having a burger at a bar: “Next thing I know, I hear rumors that I was drunk in the afternoon and was with ‘some chick.’ It was my wife.”

In Washington, Capuano says, “it’s a lot worse.”

“When I was a kid, the Democrats and Republicans used to socialize together,” says Ali Wentworth, whose parents were a Washington Post reporter and Nancy Reagan’s social secretary. “My parents always had dinner parties, and sources exchanged ideas. Bob Woodward would be at the table. Tip O’Neill would get into these screaming fits, and then they would go play tennis.”

Now, says Wentworth—who is married to ABC journalist and former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos—“Republicans are all in their mansions in McLean and Democrats are in the Palisades or Georgetown.”

Some of the newer members of Congress are trying to turn back the clock. Representatives David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Nan Hayworth, a New York Republican, are seeking support for the Common Ground Caucus, a purely social group. To join, a lawmaker has to bring a colleague from the other party.

“We are living in an environment now where there are very few opportunities to develop those relationships,” says Cicilline. “If we don’t intentionally try to develop remedies to make it happen, it won’t happen.”

A group of George Washington University students is on the case, starting Slam Dunks, Fireworks, and Eagles Super PAC, which is committed to raising cash to fund beer-fueled sessions where lawmakers could conduct bipartisan negotiations. It’s the thought that counts: Recent Federal Election Commission filings show that the group has yet to raise or spend any money.

Cicilline and Hayworth’s caucus, meanwhile, started out with a cocktail party. Only 11 members came. So now they’re thinking about setting up a breakfast after Congress is back in session. Presumably, there will be no alcohol with the eggs.

But lawmakers getting together and just trying to get to know one another as people? We can all drink to that.

Susan Milligan ( is a political and foreign-affairs writer.

This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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