By Emily Heil - 12/13/06 12:00 AM EST
An e-mail has found its way into the inboxes of the staffers, lobbyists, journalists and others in Washington who make up D.C.’s partying class.
It lists what appears to be every holiday party in Washington worth going to, from the splashy bash CSX held earlier this month at Union Station (featuring real railroad cars and an ice luge for chilling vodka drinks) to a mysterious-sounding “2nd annual Eggnog Soiree” at a Capitol Hill apartment.
Last year, the same list was passed around in the form of a convenient wallet-size laminated card. This year it’s too big to fit into even the roomiest pocket.
For the three weeks before Christmas that make up the prime holiday-soiree season, Washington’s party people will practice the art of juggling a cocktail and a plate of shrimp, admire assorted ice sculptures, and queue up at dessert bars for a third helping of mini-brownies.
And while many seek out parties, to some the sheer volume of invitations feels less like a cause to celebrate and more like a chore.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) gets about 75 invitations a week to events in Washington, her spokesman Ryan Loskarn says, and manages to hit a good number of them. Last Thursday, she did “fly-by” visits to five gatherings, he said.
Like most members, Blackburn views party-going as a mix of business and pleasure.
“People at these parties aren’t really there to rest and relax,” Loskarn says.
Even some of the most outwardly merry partygoers will privately confess to holiday-party overload. “Ugh, I could go to three parties a night from now until Christmas,” said one lobbyist who didn’t want to identified for fear of angering clients whose parties he plans to attend. “The first one’s fun, but after that it gets really tedious.”
One of the chief perils of the holiday-party season is overindulgence in food and drink. The cocktail food served at most holiday parties — think mini-quiche, super-salty ham slices and cookies — is notoriously unhealthy, its primary purpose being to encourage eaters to drink more.
“ ’Tis the season of gluttony, with silly parties stacked up three or four a night,” says one Democratic Senate press secretary. “You eat too much. You drink too much. You often say and do embarrassing things, usually in direct correlation to the amount of alcohol you have consumed.”
By the time the D.C. holiday circuit grinds to a hung-over end, just in time for the actual holidays the season is purported to celebrate, many partiers say they’re exhausted.
“I feel like I need to go to detox just to get all the cocktails and rich food out of my system,” says one Senate staffer. “And somehow I haven’t gotten anything done, like Christmas shopping.”
Others complain of the sheer sameness of all the events. “You get up, go to work, hit the parties, then you do it all over again,” says one former House staffer. “You get tired of the same finger-food and of being on your feet all the time.”
While the parties are undeniably social occasions, they are frequently command performances by lobbyists hoping to get face time with staffers or PR and consulting types hoping to trade cards with potential clients.
Hill staffers are the most deluged with invites, since they are always in demand for holiday schmoozing. Private-sector types, too, can take their pick of invites.
Just sorting through all the invites can be tricky. For some people, business connections dictate which invites get “yes” RSVPs. But with so many to choose from, many picky partiers rely on word of mouth to figure out which parties have the best spreads, the most top-shelf liquor and the best scenes.
At the Chamber of Commerce’s holiday party last Thursday at Chamber headquarters across from the White House, the crowd was thick with young staffers, no doubt lured by the party’s reputation as one of the most lavish of the season, complete with a groaning buffet and what looked like acres of bars.
Matt Leopold, who works in the D.C. office for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), says he and his friends compare notes to figure out which parties to hit on a given night. “It seems like everyone just knows which are the good parties,” he says. The Chamber party, he notes, made the cut.
Pepper Pennington, press secretary to Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), says veterans of the D.C. holiday-party scene are blas� and therefore hold out for the best parties.
“The novelty kind of wears off,” she says. “So you look for a party that has something special to offer, like a cool venue, or cute bartenders or a funny Santa.”
For members, juggling the dozens of invites that pile up on their schedulers’ desks is a bit of an art form.
Some say it comes down to location, location, location.
Which parties members can attend is often dictated by how close the events are to the Capitol, a factor made even more important when Congress is working and voting late into the night, as it often does near the end of the session in December.
“Proximity to the Capitol is definitely a factor,” Pennington said of her boss’s party picks.
And for Blackburn, there’s a multi-step sorting process. First, Blackburn’s staff narrows down the invites to parties at times that are open on the congresswoman’s schedule. Then they sort them by importance to her district. “We look for a connection to the 7th District,” Loskarn says, such as “if there’s a staffer for an organization from the district.” Next, the staff looks for committee connections.
Some members of Congress have an easier way to deal with the influx of invitations: Just say no. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) says he rarely goes out in the evening when he’s in Washington, even during the most festive month of the year.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do anything adult,” he says of himself and his wife, Supriya Jolly. “Our idea of a party is taking the kids to Chuck E. Cheese.”
With three young children, the youngest of whom is 3 months old, Jindal views his time in Washington, oddly, as restful.
“Sleep is at such a premium, that when I’m here, I try to catch up,” he says. “I appreciate the invitations, but I like to get up early and go to the gym.”
Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who like Jindal is one of the younger members of Congress, doesn’t party hard during the holidays. He held a get-together for his staff at AV Ristorante, but other than that, says he manages to avoid the eggnog-and-cheese circuit.
“I don’t think I’ve been anywhere but here or sleeping,” he said as he emerged from a meeting in the Longworth building.