Christmas shopping in Congress


For the first time that he can remember, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and his family are cutting back on their holiday shopping this Christmas season. They haven’t figured out how yet, but they plan to limit the number of gifts they give one another, perhaps by drawing names.

“My wife said we’re cutting back for the first time, and I’m on board with that,” he said while riding a Senate subway car back to his office from the Capitol. “I think it’ll be fine [with family members].”

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With the holiday shopping season under way, some members of Congress are taking the public’s lead and limiting their gift-buying this season, citing sensitivity to the country’s economic woes.

But other lawmakers are spending just as much as always and encouraging people to do the same, saying that consumer confidence will help lift the country out of the slump.

Whatever their approach, members of Congress have gotten sucked into the annual holiday shopping craze — what to give, what to ask for and, in an unusually busy legislative month, when to get it all done.

Like Sessions, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and her family are taking a different approach to Christmas gift-giving this season.

“This year, instead of getting each other gifts, we’re just going to take the same money and give it to our favorite charity,” she said.

It was Edwards’s youngest sister’s idea, but she said the whole family loved it when she brought it up over Thanksgiving. Edwards is planning to give her money to the Family Crisis Center, an organization in Prince George’s County, Md., for victims of domestic violence. Edwards has also taken on a monumental Christmas task: She has invited her entire staff from both her district and D.C. offices for a home-cooked holiday dinner on Dec. 16.

Some members, like Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), aren’t doing anything different this holiday season (one of his favorite gifts to give, he said, is a Best Buy gift card). A few lawmakers, like Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), are even cheerleading the general public to help boost the economy through robust Christmas shopping.

“I hope people don’t hold back and that they spend what they can — obviously, not more than they can afford — because I think this is all a confidence measure,” Engel said. “When people have confidence in the economy, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Engel noted that people in his Bronx and Westchester County district seem to be reining in their holiday spending so far — and one way he’s been able to tell is through this season’s push for campaign contributions.

“I think this year a lot of people are holding back, and we can see it when we make phone calls for our campaigns,” he said.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said when he traveled back to his Brooklyn district over the Thanksgiving recess, he, too, got the strong sense that it was going to be a penny-pinching holiday.

“People are very nervous,” he said. “The main thing people are talking about is jobs, and people who are working are very nervous about the fact of being laid off, so they’re not spending. But I hope they’ll begin to have confidence and get things flowing and get the money circulating.”

Meanwhile, Engel and Towns have their own shopping to do. Though they both admitted that they’re not big holiday shoppers, when they do shop, they like to go into the stores rather than buy presents online.

“I find it very therapeutic to go in there and touch a lot of things and figure out what my wife would like,” Towns said. “And online, you can’t get that same kind of feeling.”

But for some members, time is the issue at hand. So they develop shopping strategies. Like Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who, on any day except Black Friday, heads to a shopping center near his home in east Texas and gets everything he needs in a matter of hours.

“I go in and I get all my gifts for the whole Christmas in three hours,” he said, adding that he shouldn’t get too much credit because he does only about 10 percent of the family’s gift shopping. “My wife carries almost the total burden, and then I follow up.”

Family gift buying is almost always a necessity, but many members don’t forget about the people they often see more than their real flesh and blood: their staff.

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“I’ve personally paid for poinsettias for the female members of the staff in the district,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who added that he doesn’t get anything for the men in his office.

Not to be forgotten, many lawmakers have their own wish lists. Brady said he already received his Christmas present this year — a series of exercise weights — but he joked that he can always use more iTunes gift cards. Engel, on the other hand, said he’s hoping to defer his Christmas gift to next year.

“Another term in office is what I always ask for,” he said. “We’re going around for the 12th time next time, so make it an even dozen.”