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Bring in the clowns: Lobby groups try fun and games

Trade groups are getting creative to push their message to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

They are bringing in clowns, hedgehogs and fast food to catch the attention of lawmakers who are pressed for time and bombarded with invitations.

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The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, for example, holds a popular event every year in the Rayburn House Office Building where it brings in wildlife to recreate a zoo experience.

The last event in May featured a hedgehog, a porcupine and a penguin, and was packed wall-to-wall with about 80 lawmakers, staff and children.

“They show up with children or grandchildren and really enjoy the experience,” spokesman Steve Feldman said of lawmakers.

“We’re trying to deliver our serious message, but we want people to have fun.”

“Oftentimes, this leads to a visit to a zoo or aquarium in their district where they may not have been in a while. It reminds them how much they enjoyed the experience,” Feldman said.

Bringing animals to Capitol Hill — from the kid-friendly hedgehog to bigger animals like the cheetah — is no easy task, but Feldman said the group has the process down pat thanks to help from U.S. Capitol Police.

“Anytime anything is brought on Capitol Hill, there is a rigorous off-site inspection and then detailed arrangements to come into house office buildings. We’ve gotten good at that over years,” he said.

The association often relies on the Columbus Zoo, because the staffers there are used to making public appearances with their popular zookeeper, Jack Hanna.

“If they can bring animals to David Letterman, they can bring animals to Capitol Hill,” Feldman joked.

Zoo animals aren’t the only exotic creatures that show up at the Capitol.

Every year Barnum and Bailey Circus hosts the DC Pachyderm Parade on streets near the Capitol, complete with elephants, clowns and acrobats.

The Defenders of Wildlife brought a wolf to the Capitol in May, although the Sergeant at Arms “put the kibosh on having a wolf in the building,” organizers said at the time.

Instead, the wolf greeted lawmakers in Longworth Park while the organizers talked about the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

Food is another popular way to lure staff and lawmakers to an event.

Each year in July, the American Meat Institute (AMI) hosts its annual Hot Dog Lunch on Capitol Hill.

More than 1,000 lawmakers and staffers swung by this past July for hot dogs, corn dogs, pretzel dogs, brats and other sausages.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has responded by having its own veggie dog event, which features women in lettuce-leaf bikinis and “Go Veg” signs.

The International Franchise Association gets in on the culinary action with its Taste of Franchising event, where member groups like McDonalds, Dominos, Jersey Mike’s, Firehouse Subs, Edible Arrangements, and Kentucky Fried Chicken serve their signature dishes while talking policy.
Erica Farage, the director of political affairs and grassroots advocacy for the IFA, said after meeting with lawmakers all day, the reception provides a more casual atmosphere for conversation and getting to know one another. She estimated between 30 and 50 lawmakers attend.

“Our members are our best advocates,” she said of their franchises, adding that “brands like that certainly draw a crowd.”

It’s the second year in a row the group put on the event.

“It’s been very successful and we look to continue the tradition,” she said.

And, in a building known for its political game playing, sometimes lawmakers get a chance to do the real thing.

MomsRising, a group that advocates for early childhood education, recently held a life-size Chutes and Ladders game on the Capitol lawn.

Lawmakers such as Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), along with Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) joined children on the board.

Miller, the ranking member of the House Education Committee, said he appreciates the break from routine.

“Just having 14 talking heads at a microphone, when you look out at the audience, everyone’s snoozing,” he said.

“They’re a change of pace — kind of a healthy change of pace.”