The term lobbyist, so the folklore goes, dates back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, who liked to steal away to the Willard Hotel for a drink and a smoke. The pressure boys and influence peddlers would seek him out there, in the hotel lobby, unfettered by the confines of White House protocol.
Though he used the term, probably pejoratively, the idea that Grant coined “lobbyists” has since been debunked as an urban myth, and many historians say it dates back to Britain.
But no matter its roots, the fact remains that lobbyists have lurked for two centuries around the favorite D.C. haunts of politicians — and their aides.
And it still happens today on Capitol Hill.
The spots have changed, even just in recent years, when tighter gift bans and ethics restrictions moved much of the purely social K Street-Congress interactions from swanky eateries to on-campus cafeterias.
“The old days of going to the Capital Grille and hanging out at the bar, that’s just not happening anymore,” one veteran lobbyist said. “It’s expensive, and they would have to pay for themselves now.”
Of course, most lobbyists these days say they get almost all of their face time with Members of Congress at fundraisers. Fundraisers are one of the last remaining venues where lobbyists can essentially foot the bill. “Members want to drive lobbyists to hard-money fundraisers,” one K Streeter said, “so they like to limit contact outside of fundraisers.”
But they obviously can’t put a stop to all nonfundraiser contact.
About two dozen K Streeters — some of them longtime lobbyists, others newbies looking to meet Hill aides on the younger side — revealed some of their favorite gathering spots to see and be seen by the bold-faced names on Capitol Hill.
Of course, there are the obvious ones, such as the National Democratic Club or the Capitol Hill Club or the bars that line Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. And surely lobbyists seeking a specific Members can always hang out in the hallways outside his or her office or, like reporters, stake out caucus meetings, lunches and escalators to the Capitol subway.
But here are five hubs of activity around Capitol Hill where you’re likely to find K Streeters lingering — no appointment needed:
1. The cafeteria at the Longworth House Office Building, specifically from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
“Everybody has to get a cup of coffee,” explained Democratic lobbyist David Thomas, a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “If you’re looking to get the lay of the land and see what people are saying, this is the place to be.”
A high-level Republican lobbyist agreed that the Longworth cafeteria is a plum spot. “I sometimes stop to get my shoes shined on the way there or the way back,” this lobbyist added. “That’s another place to run into people.”
2. The Starbucks at 237 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Being only two blocks from the Capitol, this is a frequent destination, especially for staffers.
“I used to have my office there,” one lobbyist joked.
3. Kickball on the National Mall. Everyone knows the networking benefits of softball. But some lobbyists, on the fit and oftentimes younger side, said they are hooked on NAKID Social Sports’ D.C. chapter. (NAKID stands for No, Adult Kickball Isn’t Dumb.)
The group sponsors kickball, dodgeball, volleyball and flag football as well as parties, happy hours and other social outings.
“There are a ton of staffers that play,” one Hill-aide-turned-lobbyist said.
4. The Dubliner, 4 F St. NW. Lobbyists say that if you’re looking for senior aides — and sometimes Members — the Irish pub can be a pot of gold.
“Whenever I go there, I run into all kinds of old staff,” one GOP lobbyist said. A veteran Democrat concurred that it’s a place to catch folks who have been around the Capitol for decades.
5. Capitol Nails Salon, 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Located one block from the Hart Senate Office Building, getting a manicure and pedicure and potentially seeing a Hill aide or Member makes for a K Street trifecta.
While this spot obviously skews toward the female crowd, keep in mind that when he was in Congress, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) was known to stop in for a pedicure.
Still, not all lobbyists find the pursuit of Members and their aides any fun. Christine Sequenzia, a lobbyist who worked for an animal welfare group that had no political action committee, said that as a nonprofit advocate, she had to get creative in finding spots to have one-on-one chats with lawmakers.
That “pay to play” atmosphere, she said, shouldn’t exist. “Members and staff should be much more accessible to the average Joe,” she added.