News & Politics

How a Tiny Splinter of Wood Keeps Congress Clean

Photograph via iStock.


Toothpic /tooth’ pik/ An eating implement too small to corrupt a Congress member in one bite.

In Washington, the humble toothpick has undergone an incredible journey. Star of the “toothpick rule,” a squishy limit on how much lobbyists can feed Congress members, the cocktail-party implement has been holding the line on congressional appetites for two decades—barely. Nowadays, skewers, prongs, and stronger utensils are passed off as conforming, even as guests ask for plates to manage their mouthful.

The notion of a toothpick rule dates to the mid-’90s, when new ethics regulations had lobbyists and their congressional marks debating what constituted graft. There was also the bagel rule (okay with cream cheese, but no lox) and the gravy rule (its presence made a dish verboten). For drinks, there was the standing rule—consumed standing up, okay; sitting down, not okay.

Neither the ’90s bill nor a stricter one passed in 2007 after the Jack Abramoff scandal mentions toothpicks: The intent, says Craig Holman of Public Citizen, who helped draft the original bill, was to stop lobbyists from dining privately with lawmakers. “There really doesn’t have to be any toothpicks, nor are forks prohibited,” says Holman. K Street, however, latched onto toothpicks as a sort of purifying sword: If your food is speared with a toothpick, of course you’re not behaving unethically! “When the original law was implemented, everyone was looking to do toothpicks,” says Josh Carin of Geppetto Catering in Riverdale.

Inevitably, conforming foods became their own cuisine. “We had to get very clever with food-delivery devices that [held items] substantive enough so that if somebody ate enough of them, it could make up a full meal,” says Mark Michael of Occasions Caterers, but “not generous enough that it would be considered a gift.” Over the years, this has included 40 kinds of sticks, from meat skewers to bamboo spears to dessert lollipops.

The most creative interpretation of “toothpick” might be a cream-colored glove described by Lee Lilley, a lobbyist with McGuireWoods, who attended the “Rack of Pork,” a biannual congressional reception hosted by the National Pork Producers Council at which attendees used the glove to hold their pork chops. “Like every rule, everybody’s stretching it as far as possible,” says Lilley. Holman recalls seeing a “large plastic spoon” being used to scoop shrimp at a lobbyists’ event for the 2012 Republican convention.

Holman says the term itself has become a derogatory way of ridiculing the meal ban, and he regrets trying to leave a loophole: “I wish I had held out for the no-cup-of-coffee rule and just banned any gift, including a cup of coffee.”

With sugar or without?

This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Britt Peterson

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor for Washingtonian.