Article — From the March 2008 issue
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Article — From the March 2008 issue
To see just how well one can live while in the public employ, stand near the Capitol South metro station around 6:30 p.m. on those weeknights when Congress is in session. One can witness a steady stream of members, staffers, and their acquaintances, in groups of twos, threes, and fours, fanning out across the city. The stream soon divides, with some branches flowing toward such nearby destinations as the Capitol Hill Club or the cavernous Charlie Palmer steakhouse. Among the other popular options are the Caucus Room, whose owners include Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs and former Republican National Committee chairman and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour; and Sam & Harry’s, a beef shrine downtown.
During the period of G.O.P. rule, the Capital Grille, which, at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, sits in the reflected glow of the Capitol dome, was perhaps the most popular hangout in town for Republican insiders. The restaurant opened here in 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich led the G.O.P. takeover of Congress, and on its opening night handed out $100,000 in free food and drink to legislators. “It might as well be part of the Capitol complex,” The Hill remarked in 2003, “like the Russell Senate Office Building or the Rayburn House Office Building, since you’re likely to run into almost as many members of Congress and staffers at the Capital Grille as you do on Capitol Hill.” Business has reportedly dropped off now that Democrats are back in charge, but it remains one of the best spots in town to hobnob with members of Congress and their entourages.
When I visited the Capital Grille one night last fall, three SUVs were idling out front for lawmakers who were finishing up inside. As I walked toward the revolving front door, Representative Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), head of the House Ways and Means Committee, was walking out. A man just in front of me—likely a lobbyist, given his power suit, leather briefcase, and Bluetooth earpiece—immediately accosted Rangel, furiously shaking his hand, and the two struck up a short but friendly conversation. After Rangel stepped into his waiting car (license plate nyrep15), the man turned to me, eyes afire, and exclaimed, “He’s da man!”
Inside, just past a window display of aged beef hanging like holy relics, the first thing one sees is a wall of wine lockers, their owners’ names engraved on brass plaques. Defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who was convicted of bribing former Representative Duke Cunningham, used to have a locker here, as did businessman Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty to similar charges. Former lobbyists whose names grace lockers include Jeffrey Shockey, a longtime aide to Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, as well as the late Ann Eppard, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to taking payoffs while working for former Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster, a longtime powerhouse on the House Transportation Committee. (Her locker is kept in memoriam.)
In the bar just beyond, an assortment of politicos can inevitably be found mingling about. On one night in October, I saw Terry Nelson, who until the summer had served as John McCain’s presidential-campaign manager, strolling through toward the dining room; William Pickle, the recently retired Senate sergeant at arms, moving from stool to stool, chatting with acquaintances; and a dapper Arthur Wu, the Republican staff director of the House Veterans’ Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, who stood at center stage with a big smile and glass in hand. Senator Norm Coleman (R., Minn.), who had dropped by after a fund-raiser held in his honor earlier in the evening at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce town house, sipped from a drink while chatting with Matthew Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
On another night, Senator Ben Nelson (D., Neb.) came into the bar from the dining room and struck up a conversation with two men while several suitors lined up to wait their turn. Also on hand was Edwina Rogers, a lobbyist and the wife of Republican power broker Ed Rogers, who along with a female friend was enjoying a night on the town whose itinerary still included a stop at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano. Rogers, whose freewheeling style seemed hard to square with her role as a conservative strategist and former Bush White House aide at the National Economic Council, was immersed in conversation with someone whom she identified to me, moments later, as an important committee staffer. The topic wasn’t hard to discern.
“You need to make Rick an offer of at least three times what he’s making now,” the man told Rogers.
“Let’s get together Thursday at Charlie Palmer’s,” Rogers replied with a laugh. “And bring Rick.”
I shared drinks with several lobbyists who meet regularly at the Grille. “They decided to criminalize everything,” one said, referring to the new ban on lobbyists buying meals for lawmakers. “My reaction is, ‘Have a good life.’ It’s not going to hurt me, I already know people, but it’s going to make it hard for those who are new [at lobbying] and are trying to build personal relationships.”
One of our tablemates was similarly untroubled. “So far, it’s saved me a lot of money,” he said. “But I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the long run. When they lowered the speed limit to 55, everyone paid attention for six months. Then they started driving 70 again.”
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am