WASHINGTON -- Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch never broke bread with a member of Congress. Because here in the land of the lawmakers, free meals of one sort or another have long been an institution, whether paid for by lobbyists, campaign funds or taxpayers.
And it's not just the lawmakers doing the eating. Their staffers, in terns and visiting constituents also join in. Little wonder, then, that some House members treated their dining room as just another place to pick up a freebie, burdening the place with more than $300,000 in unpaid tabs.
A quick look around the Capitol Hill area at any lunch hour tells the story.
At the Monocle Restaurant, a block away from the Senate office buildings, the tables are often filled with senators and staffers, many dining with lobbyists who insist on paying the bill.
Bart Naylor, a former aide to the Senate banking committee, recalled that the compact scene of political intrigue -- a senator here, a staffer there and busy lobbyists everywhere, each working on a different issue -- often reminded him of the Renoir painting, "The Boating Party," in which "there was a whole soap opera going on in that one small shot."
A few blocks east of the Capitol is the 116 Club, a private restaurant with mostly lobbyists for members. Lunchtime there is a secluded affair, without worries that some reporter will barge in or that some other lobbyists will try to poach on one's guest.
If you don't like those spots, there are dozens of other restaurants that regularly draw lobbyists and their guests.
Then there are the House and Senate dining rooms in the Capitol itself, where the undisputed king of the free-lunch providers until his death 18 months ago was Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga, the Hawaii Democrat who promised a free meal for any constituent who would pay a visit all the way from Hawaii.
It was no idle promise.
"On any given day," said a former ranking Senate aide, "there would be 12 to 15 to 20 people in the Senate dining room eating as his guests." After a while restaurant employees simply began reserving several tables for Mr. Matsunaga's visitors.
"His monthly bill for all this probably ran to $35,000 or more," the aide recalled. And Mr. Matsunaga always paid the bill, he quickly added.
But the senator wasn't quite as generous as it seems. He paid with his campaign donations, some of which came from the same people who were treated to lunch.
"When he ran for election, everybody who he had taken to lunch was on the list of people he would ask for help," the aide said. "And they didn't forget him."
But the aide, and others, are sympathetic with House members who have run up huge, delinquent tabs. Much of that, they say, was probably racked up by constituent groups and clients of lobbyists who were allowed to sign for meals in the names of members of Congress. And, "Unless you have someone in your office who kept track of it, then you don't know where the hell it goes," he said.
Lobbyist Howard Marlowe, who is careful about not letting such things become an embarrassment, said he always required clients to bring along a check to pay for the meals on the spot. Otherwise, he said, you ran the risk of putting the member of Congress "under the deadbeat category, when in fact it was one of your clients."
In the evenings, the free-eating pace doesn't slacken.
The various receptions and political fund-raisers around town, with their ubiquitous buffet tables, are especially attractive to the low-salary congressional interns, who always seem to find a way in the door even when there's a pricey ticket required.
Weekends bring further opportunities. If a member of Congress is lucky enough to get invited to a White House state dinner, the White House pays. If he or she is invited to a press event, such as the annual White House Correspondents Dinner or Gridiron Club bash, the press pays. If there are meals during a weekend junket to Palm Springs, Calif., some industry or some lobbyist pays. And if members are guests of a foreign nation or overseas corporation, then the nation or the corporation pays for the meals.
Even when the member has to pick up a check and actually pay it, there's always the campaign fund to absorb the loss, even if the meal is eaten at a local restaurant.
Consider the example of Representative Bud Shuster, R-Pa., who for his last three campaigns has raised money while running unopposed. That leaves plenty of cash for food, and his campaign spending reports show that during the first six months of this year he spent at least $10,500 of his contributions on meals, mostly at Washington-area restaurants such as Le Mistral, Luigi's, the Ritz Carlton Hotel restaurant, Hunan Dynasty, The Chart House, Terrazza, the Willard Hotel restaurant, Tortilla Coast and a dressed-up barbecue joint called Red, Hot and Blue. That's an eating pace of about $60 a day.
Or, looked at another way, it's enough money to have bought meals for more than 11 weeks for the 2,000 daily customers at one of the nation's most humble free-food destinations: Washington's largest homeless shelter, run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence.