“I’m here three or four times a week,” Congressman Tom Price of Georgia told a small crowd last Thursday at the Capitol Hill Club, a private establishment for Republicans and their supporters. “But,” he added quickly, “that’s not for public consumption.”
Even though I’d finished work on my latest article for the magazine, “Beltway bacchanal: Congress lives high on the contributor’s dime”, I couldn’t resist making a follow-up trip last week to the Club, which is located in a townhouse just one block from the U.S. Capitol. Price was speaking as an Honorary Chair of Southern States Night, a corporate-sponsored Club fundraiser that honored the G.O.P. congressional delegations from Old Dixie. Price isn’t the only Republican lawmaker who’s a regular at the Club. During the first nine months of 2007, G.O.P. members of congress spent more than $600,000 there for meals and fundraisers paid for from political funds, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Capitol Hill Club is one of the most popular gathering spots in Washington for lawmakers, government officials and other members of the political establishment. (The Democrats have their own club just a few blocks away.) The Presidential Dining Room–menu favorites include the $32 Filet Mignon with gorgonzola sauce and the $29 tuna steak with balsamic thyme glaze–is “a favorite place for Senators, Representatives, and their guests to dine and discuss the day’s political agenda,” according to the Club brochure. The “75 Room” features a fireplace and member library and “is a superb venue for viewing House and Senate deliberations, small meetings, relaxing between appointments, or catching up on your messages.”
The Club also sponsors annual golf tournaments with Congressional leaders, theater evenings, winemaker dinners, holiday brunches and other events. Lobbyists and business executives join “because they get a lot [of] face time and privacy with members,” a former board member told me.
Applicants for Club membership must be sponsored by at least two current members. Those approved pay a $1,000 initiation fee and monthly dues of $125. The initiation fee drops to $300 for members of Congress and government officials, who pay monthly fees of $62.50. Journalists can enter the Club if invited and escorted by a member, but the former board member told me that it was encouraged to “phone ahead” if a member of the press was coming. A few years ago I had a drink there with a Club member who had apparently not taken that precaution. Congressman John Boehner, flush-faced and glass in hand, approached our table and immediately began talking with my companion, whom he knew, about recent meetings he’d had with government officials from Kazakhstan. Boehner was just getting warmed up but my companion cut him off to let him know that I was a journalist. The story came to an end and Boehner, who looked stricken, quickly sought other company.
Last month, a lobbyist friend took me to the Club for drinks. On the way in, I picked up a flyer that listed Club events for January. The Seafood Extravaganza, a $45-per-person buffet featuring a raw bar, Maine lobster, Crab and Prime Rib, was “back by popular demand.” On January 28, the Club offered a $35 per person Texas Style Buffet with brisket, ribs, potato salad and corn bread in honor of President Bush’s last State of the Union Address. But I was especially sorry to have missed a “Complimentary Ethics Briefing” for Club members,” which had been presented by Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Washington attorney and G.O.P. strategist who serves on the board of the American Conservative Union. The title of the briefing: “The New Lobbying and Ethics Law: Know Enough NOT to Be Dangerous.”
My friend and I sat downstairs in the Auchincloss Grill, where Fox News was beaming from a large wall TV. It was 5:30, still early for members of Congress – the brochure described the Grill as always “especially busy after a late-night session of Congress” — but a number of lobbyists and Hill staffers were on hand. At one table a lobbyist from the Southern Strategy Group was discussing his firm’s capabilities with a companion; at another a young woman was talking about her friend who works for Congressman Tim Murphy; and at a third table, out of earshot, sat Jeff Speaks, a lobbyist and powerful former aide to Congressman Hal Rogers, who was chatting with several colleagues.
Anyway, I returned last Thursday and plunked down $20 for a ticket to Southern States Night, an open-to-the-public event which was held in a third floor room that featured portraits of First Ladies Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Pat Nixon. There were two other fundraisers taking place at the same time. In a room to the right was an event for Congressman Connie Mack of Florida and on the left one for Minority Leader Boehner.
About 50 people attended Southern States Night, many representing the event’s sponsors. The biggest underwriters, dubbed the Peachtree Street Sponsors, were Norfolk Southern, USAA, which sells insurance to military members, and Altria (formerly Philip Morris). The next level of support came from Bourbon Street Sponsors–Progress Energy, Southern Co. and UPS–while the third level, the Beale Street Sponsors, included AFLAC, the American Petroleum Institute, Capitol Hill Consulting Group, Eastman Chemical, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey, Home Depot, and NBC/Universal.
Food was bountiful, though the quantity far surpassed the quality. There were steam trays of Texas chili, North Carolina pulled pork, Tennessee cured ham, Mississippi fried catfish and hush puppies, and Louisiana crawfish over fettuccine. Drinks, which cost extra, included an assortment of beer, the Club’s own label Cabernet (not recommended), and signature cocktails like the potent Sezerac from New Orleans, made with rye whiskey, sugar, and bitters.
During his talk, Congressman Price called the Club a “home away from home,” and “a place where you can make sure that what you’re thinking on the floor [of Congress] is what you ought to be thinking.” He promised that the other Honorary Chair, Congressman Jim McCrery of Louisiana, would be drop by soon but at the moment was “doing the Lord’s work,” by which Price was referring to the economic stimulus bill (that Congress would pass later that night).
After his speech Price mingled with the crowd. “What office do you work in, honey?” he asked one young woman standing by the food tables.
On the way out I picked up a collection of door prizes: a small bottle of hot sauce, compliments of Louisiana Congressman Rodney Alexander; a container of hand sanitizer from the Starkville, Mississippi Convention & Visitor’s Bureau; and an annoying stuffed baby duck from Aflac that squawks the company’s name three times when you squeeze its back.
Meanwhile, G.O.P. lovebirds were also invited to a Valentine’s Dinner & Dance, to be held yesterday. For $50 per person, guests could ingest a meal of thousands of calories in the form of a jumbo lump crabmeat salad appetizer, an entrée of shrimp, medallion of beef and jumbo scallops topped with a morel cream sauce, and dessert of Chocolate Passion Fruit Mousse. The Radio King Orchestra, “Washington’s most exciting and elegant Big Band” which “encompasses the sophistication yet carefree nature of the cherished Rat Pack,” would provide the night’s entertainment.