Russell Batson loitered outside the Cannon Caucus Room, inhaling the delicious smells that wafted out and plotting how he was going to sneak inside, where the free food and booze were beckoning.
It was a cold February night and CBS was throwing a party to promote its miniseries "Queen" -- a reception where members of Congress and other Capitol Hill hotshots could mingle with such stars as Martin Sheen and Ossie Davis. Being neither a congressman nor a star, Batson hadn't been invited to the party. But he's not the kind of guy who'd be deterred by a little technicality like that.
Looking very serious and important in his impeccable dark suit, white shirt and power tie, Batson, 30, casually strolled up to a table covered with name tags. He leaned toward the receptionist behind the table and said, "Hi, Russ Batson," and she immediately made a name tag for him, right on the spot, no questions asked.
Which didn't surprise him one bit. In all his years of Capitol Hill reception-crashing -- as a Senate intern, as a House staffer, and now as a lawyer for a high-powered trade association whose name he'd rather not have associated with his hobby of high-class freeloading -- Batson's never been turned away. Never. The secret is attitude, he says. You've got to affect that self-important, in-a-hurry, I-belong-here air so prevalent on Capitol Hill. Once you master that, you're in.
And now Batson was in the "Queen" reception. He sauntered casually to the bar and ordered up a free Bombay gin and tonic. He took a couple of long, slow, contemplative sips. Then he launched a frontal assault on the buffet table.
And what a buffet table it was! Huge and heaped with dish after silver dish of gourmet delicacies! All of them constantly replenished by a small army of liveried servants!
Deftly, suavely, gracefully, Batson slipped through the crowd and sidled into a little sliver of a spot along the table. A few moments later, he slipped back out again, carrying a plate piled high with fancy eats. He balanced the plate atop his gin and tonic glass -- a technique he calls the "one-hand stack" -- and he started chowing down.
"Top-drawer food," he said between bites. "We have some toast with pesto on it. We have the three-tone ravioli, which is made from spinach pasta and regular pasta and carrot pasta. I can't really taste the difference. I don't know what the big deal is. But it's very attractive. There's the crab cakes. There's this stuff that looks kind of like horse feed, which is corn and black beans and some mushrooms. It's very good. We've got some smoked salmon . . ."
He took another few bites and washed them down with a slug of gin. "I'd give it an A-minus," he said.
HIGH PRAISE! PARTICULARLY COMING FROM RUSS BATSON, the poet laureate of party-crashing, the sage of Swedish meatballs, the grand arbiter of artichoke dip.
Batson wrote the book on freeloading at Capitol Hill receptions. Literally. It's called Eat Free in D.C.: A Guide to Budget-Neutral Dining and it sells for $5, if you can find it, which isn't easy. Batson published it himself, as a kind of gift to the legions of unpaid Hill interns and underpaid Hill staffers who do the grunt work of government and who desperately need his tongue-in-cheek tips on how to live off the fat of the land on Capitol Hill.
"You can eat like Elvis without spending a dime," he wrote. "What a country!"
Batson's booklet hasn't sold many copies -- fewer than a hundred, in fact -- but it was excerpted in Harper's magazine, which led to the author's appearance on "Fox Morning News" and interviews with radio stations from Jacksonville, Fla., to Alberta, Canada. And he was so thrilled at his semi-quasi-fame that he put out a second edition of the book, complete with cartoons and updated information.
The 24-page opus reveals which receptions have the best food (the American Bankers Association and the National Association of Home Builders, among others) and which are just a step up from ptomaine ("any reception held by federal employee or postal unions"). It also identifies the "five major food groups" of the congressional reception -- "grilled shrimp, martinis, crab cakes, chocolate pastries and stuff on toothpicks" -- and the one major beverage group, which is booze: "The political system mercifully braces its young with anaesthetic before inflicting the tax agenda of the Animal Husbandry Institute upon them."
Batson also reveals who should be avoided at these affairs: lobbyists. Particularly the ones who are throwing the party. "These selfish individuals will attempt to interrupt your feeding frenzy to discuss legislation. It is best to travel in pairs and feign a heated political discussion of your own." If that doesn't work, he writes, "take the lobbyist's card and indicate your availability for lunch."
Lunching with lobbyists is, of course, another good source of free food for the impoverished Hill staffer. But there are dangers involved. "They will deluge you with obscure facts about their industry," Batson writes. "This can be one of Washington's most trying psychological ordeals, sort of like an Outward Bound adventure without the canoe. Remain calm, allowing the rhetoric to wash over you (it can't physically harm you). You can keep alert by playing mental games -- count, for example, the number of times the lobbyist uses stupid D.C. phrases like 'no-brainer' and 'fundamental disconnect' . . ."
Obviously, the free lunch can carry a high psychic price tag. That's why Batson prefers post-work reception trolling. "Meatballs, chicken wings and fresh fruit can be found on almost any weekday evening when Congress is in session," he writes. Cruise the halls of the Cannon or Rayburn House Office Building, sniffing the air for the scent of Swedish meatballs, he advises. After locating a reception, take a surreptitious glance at the host's name tag to determine what organization is sponsoring the fete and then quickly conjure up some semi-plausible reason for being there.
"I have seen some of the best at work under these conditions," Batson writes, "and in my mind, there is no more beautiful experience in the whole field of human endeavor."
AFTER SCARFING DOWN HIS SECOND HELPING OF THREE-TONE ravioli, Batson slipped out of the "Queen" reception and went foraging for food in the Rayburn Building.
He was accompanied by a few of his reception-crashing cohorts -- Amy Barnes, a former Hill denizen, and Will Hollier and Alexandra Arriaga, who work in congressional offices but don't want to reveal which ones, for fear of embarrassing the representatives who employ them. And isn't it comforting to learn that there are, even in this day and age, some representatives still capable of being embarrassed?
The merry band of freeloaders scurried through tunnels and down hallways in search of receptions. The first one they found was sponsored by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. At the front of the room was a huge poster showing the growth of the federal deficit in long red lines that looked like dripping blood. It was not a good sign. Groups lobbying against profligate spending do not tend to shell out for fancy chow or high-class hooch.
And this group was no exception. The makeshift bar dispensed only beer and soda. Batson ordered a beer, took a slug and reconnoitered the buffet table. It did not quite meet the tough standards set by the "Queen" feast. There was a tray of vegetables -- cherry tomatoes, baby carrots and skinny strips of peppers and squash. There was a pasty white dip surrounded by thin slices of French bread. There was a hunk of brie -- which apparently is not just for liberals anymore -- and a crockpot in which a substance that resembled putty was slowly bubbling.
"This appears to be a creamy, cheeselike substance that is moving," Batson said. "I'm gonna steer clear of that."
"This is your typical reception," said Arriaga. She pointed to the vegetable tray. "That's from the House catering service. You can tell by the tray and the food."
"If this had been too ostentatious, it wouldn't have made their point," said Barnes. She pointed out several congressmen, who were engaged in deep discussions, presumably about the budget deficit. "They're doing their jobs. They're not at the CBS reception, where the food is better. They're here to do business, not to have fun."
Batson, however, was more interested in fun and food than in doing business, so he chugged his beer and led the group off in search of better grazing grounds. As they hustled down the hallway, he rated the Taxpayers' fete. "C-plus," he said. "The beer was cold. Let's leave it at that."
By then, Batson was practically running. He'd heard of two other receptions scheduled for the Rayburn Building that evening -- one sponsored by a medical coalition, the other by an association of pork producers. But it was already after 7 o'clock and the parties wouldn't last much longer. As he scurried down stairways and jogged down hallways, followed closely by his friends, he passed several workmen pushing carts filled with the remains of receptions that had already ended.
Finally, they arrived, panting, at the medical reception, only to find that it was over. So they quickly changed direction and scurried off toward the pork party. Along the way, Batson glanced into a hearing room and spotted a table full of food. Was this the pork feast? He stepped inside and looked around. A crowd of people were silently eating sandwiches and drinking sodas under a banner that read, "Canisius College Alumni Association." Batson kept going, marching out the room's second doorway, where a sign read "No Food or Beverages in the Hearing Room."
He didn't even notice it. He was striding down the hallway, searching for pork.
SEARCHING FOR PORK! BUT OF COURSE! THAT'S WHAT Capitol Hill is all about!
Which is why this free-food scam is a great metaphor for the whole culture of Congress, a veritable reification of the spoils system and pork barrel politics.
At the high end of the Hill food chain, there are senators and representatives, who spend a sizable portion of their time attending fund-raising receptions, where they get not only free food but free money in the form of campaign contributions and PAC funds. In return for which they bring home the bacon for their contributors in the form of pork barrel projects and tax breaks and government contracts. Meanwhile, at the low end of the food chain, there are the young Hill staffers, who work 50 or 60 hours a week answering constituent mail or carrying "Dear Colleague" letters from office to office for $20,000 a year. They don't get any PAC money. Their spoils come in the form of Swedish meatballs. To them, pork is not a figure of speech, it's something on the end of toothpick at a reception they were not invited to but are generally tolerated at nonetheless.
"You expect to see low-level staffers stuffing themselves at receptions," says lobbyist Mark Dunham. "That's America. In a funny way, it's sort of an allegory of what brings people to Washington. They come hoping to reap the spoils of public service. And that's what a lot of them do."
Dunham, 30, is now a vice president of the Beacon Consulting Group, but he put in his time as a reception-prowling Hill staffer. He started in 1985 as a $13,000 delivery boy in the Senate Document Room. "In that job, on that salary," he says, "receptions were a godsend because I couldn't cook and I didn't have any money."
Later, he became a legislative aide to Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) at a slightly more exalted salary, but he still made the rounds of receptions, where he was known to do some serious scarfing. "Among my friends, I had a reputation for eating a lot very quickly and getting out of there," he says. "You get pretty shameless after a while. You forget the manners your mama taught you."
These days, Dunham is a serious, self-respecting adult so he doesn't attend Capitol Hill receptions unless he is actually invited. But when he goes, he likes to watch the young freeloaders in action.
"You can pick out the kids stuffing the eggrolls in their mouths and chugging the beers back," he says. "It's amazing how much you can eat and drink in five minutes. And I think, 'Go ahead, brother, I've been there.' You know these guys are going home to a one-room efficiency with nothing in the refrigerator except a stick of butter and a couple of old apples."
RUSSELL BATSON LOITERED, IN THE middle of the Grand Ballroom in the Washington Hilton Hotel, with a plate of shrimp etouffee and a gin and tonic in his hands and a look of sublime satisfaction on his face.
"I have been to the mountaintop," he said.
In fact, he was on the mountaintop at that moment. He was standing amid the glorious hubbub of "Louisiana Alive," the fabled "Special Tribute to the Louisiana Congressional Delegation," which is held every year around Mardi Gras time, and which is, arguably, the apogee of free food in Washington. There was plenty of booze and big piles of giant shrimp and huge tubs of gumbo and etouffee and crawfish macque choux and alligator piquant sauce. And there was a Dixieland band and a zydeco band and a laser light show that projected pictures of the Louisiana delegation on a giant screen. And there were a couple dozen Louisiana festival queens, including the Hog Queen, the Soybean Queen, the Sugar Cane Queen, the Poke Salad Queen and the Yambilee Queen, all of them clad in slinky cocktail dresses and crowned with tiaras.
No doubt about it: People from Louisiana really know how to throw a party, particularly when the party is paid for by Chevron, Shell, Texaco, Dow, OxyChem, the Tobacco Institute and the Chemical Manufacturers Association, among other deep-pockets contributors.
Batson was one of a couple thousand lucky folks who'd managed to wangle a free ticket to this affair, and he was glad he did. He ate lots of Cajun food and washed it down with lots of gin and then he wandered around, greeting old friends from the Hill and talking about what a great reception this was. One of his old friends was a young lady who lamented that her major reception days were coming to an end. The problem was this: She was leaving her job as an aide to a conservative Texas congressman with close ties to the oil business, and moving on to a job as an aide to a liberal California congresswoman who's a rabid environmentalist.
"I'm going from receptions sponsored by OxyChem with oysters and shrimp," she said, "to receptions sponsored by the Sierra Club with cheese cubes and soda water."
Of course, she didn't want to be quoted by name for fear of embarrassing either representative.
Why was she making such a radical gastronomic sacrifice?
"I'm a good Democrat," she said. "My head is ruling over my stomach."
Batson kept circulating and he kept running into his fellow freeloaders from the Hill. One of them was Will Hollier, who'd been with him on the night of the "Queen" reception. After a couple hours of Louisiana hospitality, Hollier was in an extremely good mood. "It's a humdinger of a party, isn't it?" he said. "You can quote me on that: hummmmmm-dinger!"
Hollier, a native of Louisiana, was particularly thrilled by the festival queens, who had begun to parade around the ballroom, followed by a marching band playing "When the Saints Go Marching In."
"Oh, the tiara crowd's coming!" he hollered. "We're gonna see those great tiara girls!"
The queens sashayed closer, dancing and shaking and strutting their formidable stuff, and Hollier could barely contain himself. "I wanna be 12 again," he said, "and grow up knowing what I know now!"
Meanwhile, Russ Batson, the poet laureate of party-crashing, stood there, sipping his gin and tonic and watching the festival queens and watching Hollier watch the festival queens. He'd eaten like Elvis without spending a dime, and he hadn't even had to listen to any lobbyists to do it. What a country!
"Nice event," he said, smiling blissfully.