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 (email@example.com) is a political and
This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.