It's holiday party time, and every trade organization, lobbying shop and PR firm wants to ply members and their staff with booze, food and gifts.
“This is a happy hour and cocktail reception city,” said Rodell Mollineau, a former Senate staffer who is now a partner at Rokk Solutions. And none more so than the holiday season. In compliance with House ethics rules, edible fare at such events tend to be finger foods. The rules allow people who work on the Hill to attend receptions and partake in “[f]ood or refreshments of a nominal value offered other than as a part of a meal.” The Senate also allows attendance at a widely attended event in which food is provided to every attendee.
But both the House and Senate ethics rules do not include any limits on alcohol, a big part of the party scene.
“I remember when I was on a diet that called for no alcohol for a month. I realized just how many people in Washington, D.C. drink. It’s part of the social culture and part of the fabric, much more so that in larger cities I’ve been to," Mollineau said.
That comports with a recent CQ Roll Call survey of Hill staff drinking habits , which found that nearly half of staffers attend social events for work once or twice a week. Most kept their alcohol under three drinks, with 44 percent having just one drink, and 33 percent having two or three drinks. Twenty-two percent said they did not drink any alcohol at such events.
“If the purpose of the event is to bring Hill staff, then alcohol is a prerequisite,” said Gary Meltz, a former staffer who runs his own PR firm, Meltz Communications. “Pretty much every event has alcohol, unless it’s something for interns. If it's for adults, of course there is alcohol served.”
The reception circuit buzzes year round, though spikes around the holidays, where staffers shared details of going to several parties in one night, many days in a row. Events tend to be held on the weekdays when Congress is in session, hoping to attract members of Congress.
Word of the receptions travels quickly. Capitol Hill staffers use listservs to circulate a list of receptions to visit on any given day, complete with host names, dates, locations, even details about swag that could be distributed.
The listservs are effective. When FamousDC partnered with the National Restaurant Association for an event in November, they had a steady stream of responses from staffers and K-street alike. Then the event went out on a House listserv. “The RSVPs doubled in a matter of hours,” said Amos Snead, one of the FamousDC founders.