Forget Pork. The Big Senate Debate: Candy

Posted March 4, 2003 at 6:22pm

For any C-SPAN devotee who has wondered how Senators maintain their energy during late-night sessions and hours of heated debate, the answer is plain old sugar. On the Republican side, confections are available at the fabled “candy desk,” currently held by Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, which has been stocked with sweets by a variety of occupants for more than three decades.

As would be expected, Santorum mostly provides products from his home state’s Hershey Foods Corp. “We believe that Hershey’s chocolate has always been and will continue to be the best,” said Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham.

Democrats, meanwhile, have their own independent energy source in the form of a bowl of candy that sits on a clerk’s desk on the side wall of the chamber. Those treats are subsidized by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

As would be expected in the fractious Senate, lawmakers rarely cross the aisle to snag a chocolate. But they have been known to sneak a peek at the other party’s provisions.

One Republican Senator who nervously requested anonymity said last Thursday that the candy issue had prompted some tension on the floor during the previous evening’s debate on the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada.

“Last night there was controversy,” reported the Senator, explaining that the grousing started when some Republicans checked out the Democratic pickings and learned that “they got PayDays and Reese’s.”

“There was a little discussion about the attractiveness and the diversity” of the Democrats’ selection, the whistle-blower said. “I have no problem with the preponderance of Hershey’s products, but I would like to see more Krackel.”

To be fair, candy wasn’t the only sweetener Santorum offered during the Estrada marathon.

When word spread among conservative activists that the Republicans were holding late-night sessions, a few elderly women connected to right-leaning groups decided to do a favor for the Senate Republicans and deliver their fresh baked cookies to the GOP Conference. Santorum distributed the cookies to Senators and staffers, but his aides still had several leftover bags full of the chocolate-chip cookies Thursday evening.

“Keeping the Conference on a nice sugar high, that’s what it’s all about,” said one Santorum aide.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) suggested that the sweet stash on the clerk’s desk proved that Democrats could go toe to toe with the GOP in the provision of candy to hungry legislators. “They have theirs and we have ours,” he said defiantly.

And his preference? “I’m a big Heath Bar man.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also praised his party’s pantry, though he said he abstains from sampling it. “I don’t because I’m on the Atkins Diet.”

“I consider myself the funder — if not the founder — of the Democratic candy jar,” said Rockefeller, who declined to say whether his party’s selection was better than the GOP’s. He did allow that they were “very different candy jars,” with Republicans generally offering larger chocolate bars than Democrats do.

While Rockefeller pays for the goodies, Democratic floor staffer Lula Davis actually makes sure the jar is filled, and she’s not afraid to harass the West Virginian if he hasn’t paid up. “I get browbeaten, but lovingly so,” he said.

For Republicans, their larder is particularly convenient. Santorum’s desk is the first one on the right as they enter from the elevator bank on the east side of the chamber.

Although most lawmakers are eager to leave the desk and unburden themselves of the responsibility for rotting their colleagues’ teeth, Santorum actually likes playing Senator Wonka. He has kept the desk for seven years.

“He enjoys the proximity to the other Members on the floor,” Traynham said. “More importantly, he enjoys the responsibility of stocking the candy desk.”

Other occupants such as Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) were less enthusiastic about the job.

“Lugar’s experience was that you certainly are critiqued on your candy choices,” said Andy Fisher, the Indianan’s spokesman. “He was delighted to give it up when he had the seniority to move elsewhere. You have to make sure it’s filled or people will be concerned.”

The candy’s journey to the Senate begins with the National Confectioners Association (which plays “Candy Man,” of course, when it puts callers on hold). The group gets in touch with its member companies in Pennsylvania, which then deal directly with Santorum’s office.

Though Hershey’s certainly dominates, other companies with operations in the state, including Mars Inc. and Godiva Chocolatier, also chip in. Their donations are made possible by an exemption in the 1995 gift ban that lets Members accept offerings of home-state products.

In a recent feature, Saveur magazine reported that Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) enjoys “peanut chews.” Ex-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) was reportedly partial to Snickers, while former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) was said to leave money on the candy desk even if he didn’t take anything.

The candy desk tradition began in 1968 when California Sen. George Murphy (R), a former movie actor and dancer with a legendary sweet tooth, began providing sustenance for his colleagues.

The move proved to be so popular that successive occupants of his desk have kept up the tradition, whether they liked it or not. Past Republican keepers of the flame have included then-Sens. Paul Fannin (Ariz.), Harrison Schmitt (N.M.), Dave Durenberger (Minn.), George Jepsen (Iowa), Steve Symms (Idaho) and Slade Gorton (Wash.).

Current Members who are candy alums include Lugar, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

According to a 1985 United Press International report, Murphy, Fannin, Schmitt and Jepsen provided only hard candies. Current aficionados said that modern Senators have expressed a strong preference for chocolate rather than hard candy.

Apparently, the tradition remained a well-kept secret until Gorton issued a press release in 1985 announcing that he would be taking over the desk. (He said in the release that his new motto would be “cavity emptor.”)

“I both enjoyed it and it was a bother,” Gorton, who is now of counsel at Preston Gates & Ellis, said of the special desk. “The pluses were that it was so social. You ended up meeting just about every Member of the Senate except for those who were constitutionally opposed to candy.”

The downsides, Gorton said, were the financial burdens and the occasional criticism of his choices.

“Every other time you went by you’d drop a dollar into the desk so that the really good candy was purchased,” Gorton said, though he added that the contributions were rarely enough. “Like the federal government, the candy desk always ran a deficit. …

“What you would get every now and then was a Member saying, ‘Why couldn’t you come up with something decent?’”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.