Hide the silverware. Stow the dinner plates. And definitely keep that 100-year-old cognac corked.
This is how K Street gets ready for a holiday shindig in the age of the Capitol Hill party police.
Fancy finery and displays of luxury have been replaced by toothpicks and finger foods. Six years ago, changes to the rules tightened the restrictions on gifts that members and staff may accept from lobbying groups, including food and drinks at lavish soirees.
Some good news for those seeking holiday cheer: Many K Street-Capitol Hill holiday parties slip in through the reception exemption, which allows for menu items of nominal value. And while the scene may not be what it once was, the parties go on.
The House Ethics Committee issued fresh guidance Wednesday, as it has done in recent years, to help anxious staffers and members of Congress relax while they nibble on cocktail weenies and bites of cheese. And in the spirit of the season, the committee added a rhyme for the holidays:
"If there's a reception, and the sponsor sent word That no meal's served. Go! That's a yes you heard."
William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper who specializes in lobbying and ethics law, said there’s never been a literal requirement that the food be eaten with a toothpick, but he said the congressional ethics committees have made it clear that meals are off limits. “They want to see hors d'oeuvres, not a dinner plate with a full compliment of silverware,” Minor said.
His tip to befuddled Hill denizens: “If you can’t eat it standing up, it might be a problem.”
Elizabeth Frazee, a co-founder of TwinLogic Strategies, said she and her guests at the tech-focused firm’s “jingle, mingle and mix” party on Thursday will eat with their fingers. It’s a small sacrifice to bring lobbyists and their Hill contacts together in a social setting.
“It’s a time to celebrate the holidays and hopefully the passage of a patent bill that we’ve been working on,” Frazee said. “We just want to have our friends around and have fun and be able to relax without having to make an ask.”
It’s also an opportunity for firms to market their brand, and with a compressed schedule between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, the invites for each night are quickly stacking up.
That means firms need to stand out — in an ethically compliant way, of course.
If there were a prize for writing creative K Street holiday party invites, Josh Zecher, a principal with 463 Communications, ought to win it.
“Despite some glitches, the 463 Holiday Website is up and running and available to accept as many as one RSVP per day! So come join us as we celebrate another year of Washington revelry,” his invite read, poking fun at the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov.
His quips weren’t just aimed at the administration. “Come early,” the invitation advised, “because it’s a decent chance Tea Party Republicans will shut down our party early.”
Zecher says the holiday party is 463’s big marketing event of the year. “It gives us an opportunity to show some of our creativity and how we’re different from our competitors,” he said. “In a city where people take themselves very seriously — and there’s a lot of serious work being done — it’s a time to be able to look back and laugh a little bit.”
Or maybe even dance a little bit.
While some groups may have scaled back on bands and musicians for fear of the ethics rules, the Entertainment Software Association expects a line of people waiting to get on stage to play a dancing video game at its Thursday party, according to Dan Hewitt, the group’s vice president of media relations and event management.
“People are creating, in a sense, their own entertainment,” Hewitt said. “It’s fun, but it also helps control costs and it puts the focus on our industry’s products.”
The ESA’s invitation even comes complete with a disclaimer: “This event is a reception under House and Senate Rules. Sponsors employ in-house registered lobbyists.”
In addition to lining up the caterers and finding just the right space (this year at the LongView Gallery), Hewitt also worked with the group’s legal team. “It’s meeting multiple demands and making sure you color within the lines,” Hewitt said.
And it’s about creating a place, the rare spot, where bipartisan comity thrives.
Chris DeLacy, a partner at Holland & Knight, said the party scene helps him bring in business this time of year, but he noted that there are bigger reasons, beyond his own books, to keep the merriment alive.
“The opportunity for folks to interact with members of Congress and their staffs have been greatly reduced since 2007, and I think that may help to explain in part the dysfunction we’re seeing,” said DeLacy, who specializes in lobbying, gift and ethics compliance. “There are very few opportunities to meet with folks outside of a fundraiser or a 15-minute meeting.”
Connections made at holiday parties, he said, can create trust, allowing people to share information and forge deals — something in short supply on Capitol Hill.
Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International, said that’s one of the reasons he has continued his firm’s annual fete at the Hotel George.
“Every year, people keep saying, ‘I’ve never seen it this bad,’” he said. “A lot of that is the lack of camaraderie. Two members of Congress can serve on the same subcommittee together in Congress and not really ever meet each other. These parties are important to get people together, to build that camaraderie.”
Still, DeLacy believes it’s important to make sure to follow the rules, which he says are “pretty easy to screw up.” His advice: When in doubt, dial up the ethics committees.