Despite Recession, Lobbyists Kick Off Holiday Parties

Lawmakers and their staff invited for open bars, free food this holiday season.

December 3, 2008— -- One day after the U.S. officially acknowledged it was in a recession, it was party time in Washington for lawmakers and their staff, courtesy of the nation's corporate lobbyists.

For weeks, invitations and event lists have been circulating on Capitol Hill, carrying promises of open bars and free food. Though some organizations say they have cut back on events in the wake of the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, many of 2008 's parties are shaping up to look a lot like the parties of earlier years.

"The partying always goes on," said Nancy Watzman of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Sunlight Foundation.

Watzman directs the group's "Party Time" project, which tracks fundraising events and other parties where lawmakers rub shoulders with special interests.

The ABC News Investigative Unit is reporting on the holiday party scene again this season, continuing last year's coverage.

Click here to watch the full story from 2007.

Defense contractors, energy companies and telecoms are all sponsoring parties this year, taking over restaurants and renting out museums in the expectation of crowds hundreds strong.

Watzman said her group objects to the parties because "even though you or I might have an opinion, we're not invited. We don't have the same chances to hobnob with congressmen."

The Nuclear Energy Institute plied Capitol Hill guests with food and drink Tuesday night at a swank restaurant in Union Station, just blocks away from the U.S. Senate. Spokesperson Steve Kerekes said the economy hadn't had any impact on this year's event. "We budget well in advance for this event," he said.

Click here to watch footage of the event.

NEI officials intercepted ABC News reporters minutes after they began filming outside the event. But unlike last year, when private security personnel ejected ABC cameras from the premises, NEI did not object to their presence. They even invited them into the party -- as long as the cameras stayed outside.

Inside staffers, lobbyists and industry officials mingled over drinks and appetizers. There was a live piano player too, and attendees were encouraged to bring a gift for charity.

On Wednesday night, the Southern Company is planning an event at Union Station hall while, across town, Lockheed Martin is scheduled to have a 300-person holiday event at a Washington hotel.

Scott Linder, a Lockheed spokesperson, refused to name the hotel, but said the company was "mindful of the gravity of the economic crisis. " The event, he added, would "be conducted in a tasteful manner."

Full Season of Holiday Festivities in Washington

The festivities continue well into next week when the Air Transport Association, representing the nation's airlines, will host a party at Lounge 201, just steps away from Senate offices. A spokeswoman for the group told she could not share details about the event, but that "it's a modest event and complies with ethics rules."

A spokesperson for the National Beer Wholesalers said that the association wasn't having an official holiday party this year. It will, however, host a party Wednesday in honor of the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. It will be held on the Hill – convenient for staffers – and have beer tasting (although no full bottles) from 33 vendors.

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America held a similar celebration Tuesday evening at the National Press Club.

Some groups say they have scaled back their party plans this holiday season or zeroed them out. The U.S. Telecom Association, representing AT&T and other broadband service providers, is throwing its annual bash at Bobby Van's steakhouse in downtown Washington. But the free food and open bar will only last for two hours, not three like last year, according to a group spokesman.

Said USTA spokesman Tom Amontree: "I think in the grand scheme of things it's a pretty tame event."

Click Here for the Investigative Homepage.