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The Capitol Hill Freeloading Zone : Politics: Hungry legislative staffers have a lot on their plates at lobbyists' receptions.


Bending low over the quiche tart tray, Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) says such receptions serve a good purpose.

"Before I was a congressman, I used to come here to lobby for the POW-MIA cause. I had five little kids all under 10 years old and I was on a budget," he recalls.

"So I skipped breakfast and lunch and chowed down on The Hill at night. But it's where I conducted most of my business. I knew it's where I could find the congressmen."

He directs a listener to the shrimp tray, saying lobbyist receptions save taxpayer money. "We work our young staffers hard, late into the night, past the times restaurants close. So they come down here, get their energy levels up and come back to work."

This is the kind of talk lobbyists like to hear.

"There are lots of underpaid staff here for free food--it's a fact of life," says Chris Galen, a food distribution spokesman, pointing to a $6,000 reception bill.

"There's not much we can do. This is a goodwill reception. We want to keep our congressmen happy. Part of that job is keeping their staffs happy as well."

Perhaps the most fascinating spectacle amid the feeding frenzy is the performance put on by freeloaders trying to escape the lobbyists' sales pitch.

The message-bearers are often inescapable, and can sometimes bring a blush of shame to the cheek of even the most dedicated freeloader.

"I had this one buzz-killing experience I'll never forget," recalled one reception hopper. "I was at this reception for the National Head Injury Foundation, scarfing down good food when out comes this guy in a wheelchair.

"You could tell he used to be real sharp and they wheeled him over and started talking policy and funding. And I said to myself, 'Oh, jeez. This is bad. I can't listen to this. I'm just a freeloader.' "

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