Heard on the Hill

How to dine like a boss on a tight budget in D.C.

Hill reception circuit offers a lifeline for cash-strapped interns

People grab food provided at the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Week Reception on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Receptions are the lifeblood of the broke Capitol Hill intern’s diet. Besides being a great place for meeting people (ABN: always be networking) they provide a bounty of free food and drinks, and usually the spreads are halfway decent. I once went a whole week without paying a dime for dinner. And honestly, with enough dedication, I could have stretched that to a month.

Besides not wearing your intern badge on your lapel, the earliest lesson you learn working on the Hill is that almost every industry has an association in D.C. to represent it. Whether it’s cement, hydrogen energy or guns, if somebody has an interest before Congress, you can bet it has a lobby organized to influence lawmakers.

Which brings us to food. Many associations host Capitol Hill receptions while in town for their fly-ins. The Cattlemen’s Association brings beef. The Southern Shrimp Alliance brings shrimp. And the Taco Bell Franchise Management Advisory Council brings … yes, you guessed it, hard-shell taco-adjacent dishes stuffed with maltodextrin, torula yeast and soy lecithin!

The food industry isn’t the only host on the circuit that has quality receptions. Beer wholesalers, wine and spirits and the Southern Company all throw top-notch parties. But it’s the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell burrito trays that really make the staffers swarm.

And then there’s the Organic Trade Association’s reception, which we scoped out this week.

The Rayburn courtyard was the perfect setting for the group’s celebration of something called “Organic Week.” For all the talk of young consumers being so health conscious, the crowd appeared to skew older, with a smattering of young staffers and interns.

At first, it seemed unlikely that anyone would be able to pull together a meal from the pepperoni and cheese hors d’oeuvres on offer. But the server quickly brought in the heavy hitters: hamburger mac and cheese, General Tso’s chicken and tofu chicken. To wash it down, the association also provided some thick mango concoction, Honest lemonade tea and wine.

If you’re wondering why all of these receptions only have serving lines, finger foods or tiny toothpicks as utensils, you can thank notorious Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose 2005 corruption scandal forever changed D.C. ethics rules.

In 2006, the anti-corruption sentiment stemming from his trial helped Democrats take back the House and Senate. Once in the majority, they immediately changed the lobbying rules. That meant no more sit-down receptions for staffers on the Hill — and no more three-martini lunches with your favorite lobbyist picking up the tab.

But don’t fret. If you work the reception circuit right, you can still find enough sustenance to get you through the evening.

And don’t be ashamed to pack a makeshift to-go plate. Even a powerful senator like Strom Thurmond was known to leave a reception or two with a napkin full of shrimp stuffed in his pocket.

 

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