Here's how to have fun and also not get fired

Over the years, the mostly twenty- and thirty-something aides working on Capitol Hill have earned the reputation of a well-partied crowd.

In the daytime, they are well-spoken, well-dressed and ambitious. By night, many shed the serious demeanor and hit the town for a night of hard partying after a grueling day at the office.
 
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But sometimes even a good time can go too far, and some offices are taking notice, with alcohol policies that forbid aides from drinking at work-related events. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) strictly prohibits his aides from imbibing at work-related events, as does Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).

McCotter believes the rule is good not only for the office but prepares young aides to be responsible later in life.

“You look at your congressman, they are usually at the zenith of their career [and]
most of your staffers are young college kids,” said McCotter spokesman Bob Jackson. “We want them to go on to bigger and better things.

“I’m not saying abolish drinking. It’s just not acceptable practice to be drinking in the workplace. They need to know as they go along in life that that type of activity is only going to hurt them.”

John Reid, Allen’s communications director, was not dismayed to learn of his boss’s alcohol policy when he joined the senator’s press shop in April. A graduate of Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Texas, with a dry campus, he was used to anti-alcohol policies. As a former TV reporter, he had covered Allen as Virginia’s governor and knew of his alcohol policy. Reid admitted that he always abided by a personal alcohol policy: never drink while covering a story.

Reid said all of Allen’s employees are given “Rules of the Game,” an employee handbook with regulations on everything from drinking cocktails at congressional receptions to keeping a positive attitude and refraining from using profanity in the office.

“This is a very disciplined office,” Reid said, “and it’s just in keeping with setting the right tone in the office. People are very conscious. Will you ever hear a curse word here? Occasionally. I’ve worked in a television newsroom, where every other word was often a four-letter word, and that’s just not the atmosphere we want to have in this office.”

Image isn’t a simple matter for lawmakers, and rules such as those employed by Allen, McCotter and others are not the norm. To have members of their staffs spotted making out at bars or falling-down the stairs drunk, as many staffers and lobbyists have witnessed, can be troubling to a lawmaker whose career gets put to the test every two years.

With holiday parties in full swing, and inauguration balls on the January horizon, aides will be out in full force and some will, inevitably, party to excess. To address the issue, some lawmakers have understood but not written policies regarding alcohol consumption and many have dress codes and guidelines restricting profanity in the office.

For anyone who thinks an evening can’t go awry for a Hill staffer who has had a few too many cocktails, take note of the following scene that occurred during the August recess: A mid-level legislative assistant was nearly fired for drunkenly making out with a colleague at an office party. While the event was held outside the office, her behavior was deemed inappropriate. At another party, where lobbyists were on hand, this same female aide was seen making out with her boyfriend.

And another, that occurred in 2002: Two aides attended an event hosted by a member of Congress. The pair got drunk and threw drinks at each other. Several lobbyists witnessed the incident.

Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, many staffers and lobbyists refused to speak on the record. Many agreed that drinking is an essential part of the culture, a social catalyst that eases ties among people involved in the political process.

As one GOP lobbyist put it, “The staffers who don’t drink get left behind. So many connections are made and things worked out over a drink after work.

“If I were a teetotaler, I wouldn’t know anyone. Not to say everyone on the Hill drinks excessively every night, but if alcohol were taken out of the equation completely Congress would get even less done.”

A former Democratic leadership aide agreed, saying an anti-alcohol office policy is stupid. “Look,” the former aide said, “you have these staffers who are working their ass off every day trying to address the concerns of their constituents and making sure their bosses are fully taken care of.”

The former aide stressed that staffers should not be asked to follow rules lawmakers don’t.

“Staff members continually lose whatever little self-respect they have because members of Congress curb their perks while they make sure their perks are not eroded,” the former aide said. “Staffers are tired of being told it’s a two-way street, especially when they’re getting run over on both sides of the street.”

Reid disagreed. He said that a Senate office such as Allen’s typically is filled with young people beginning their careers and that sometimes reminders are needed on the proper way to behave inside and outside the office.

“While most of them probably don’t need that kind of guidance, it’s to remind them that this is an important place with important decisions being made,” he said.

“When you’re representing the office, it’s important to conduct yourself with an appropriate demeanor.” Later he added, “I don’t think it impedes people from enjoying their personal time however way they want to that’s legal.”

Rep. Joseph Pitts’s (R-Pa.) office rules are representative of many offices on Capitol Hill. His office handbook prohibits the “unlawful manufacture and sale or use of controlled substances in the workplace.” But by and large, the rules of the office are unspoken.

“In many instances, staff represent their boss at a reception, in a meeting,” said Derek Karchner, Pitts’s spokesman.

He added that the way aides comport themselves is extremely important: “We are oftentimes the only face that people see in the office. We have a great deal of respect for Representative Pitts and would never want to do anything to jeopardize his reputation.”

If aides attend after-work receptions where alcohol is served, Karchner said, it’s understood that they will be on their best behavior. “I assume you could have one drink, but it’s expected that you won’t abuse it,” he said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) has a strict policy that bans any alcohol consumption at work. The congressman, who seldom drinks, represents a 14-county Bible Belt district that has alcohol sales in only three or four counties.

Wade Newton, Aderholt’s spokesman, said the policy and attitude concerning alcohol are reflective of the district: “very conservative, very religious, moral values. Most of our staff know not to drink anyway. You rarely see our staffers drinking at an event on the Hill.”

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) feels no need to have an alcohol policy for his staff, since most aides are Mormon and follow religious guidelines that prohibit drinking alcohol or caffeine. “I don’t know of any staffer in the office who drinks alcohol,” said Scott Parker, Bishop’s spokesman.

In Rep. Jim Moran’s (D-Va.) office, there is no alcohol policy, but there is a dress code. When Congress is in session, male aides must wear suits and ties and female aides wear blouses and skirts, but there is no skirt-length requirement. When Congress is out of session, aides may wear slacks and button-down shirts. Moran’s lack of a policy regarding alcohol, an aide said, presumes that everyone he hires knows how to behave like responsible adults.

The GOP lobbyist quoted above noted, “It is never a good idea to get wasted at a work event, but not allowing someone to not drink at all is silly. You should be able to trust adults to consume in moderation.

“If you are going to make it in this town, you need to learn the art of drinking enough to fit in and have fun but not enough so you can’t speak or stand up.”

Alcohol policies in congressional offices may be enough to scare some staffers into drinking less when they are on the clock, but they may not be able to put a dent in hard-core partying that has gone on for years.

“I see them smashed all the time,” the GOP lobbyist said of aides. Then he reasoned, “Do you think you would have so many bars in close proximity to the Capitol if they didn’t love to drink?”