By Bob Cusack - 09/11/13 10:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers, business leaders and journalists will gather next week for a milestone dinner conversation that became a Washington tradition more than three decades ago. [WATCH VIDEO]
The bipartisan, off-the-record gatherings have been described as an oasis from Washington’s partisan bickering. Members of Congress freely talk, sometimes criticizing their own party leaders and engaging in vigorous discussions on a range of policy issues.
The American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF), a nonpartisan business-backed nonprofit and think tank that advocates pro-growth policies, hosts the dinners.
Over the years, powerful players from both sides of the aisle have attended, including Al GoreAl GoreStopping Puerto Rico’s Zika crisis Democrats target Libertarian ticket Mark Mellman: Debating the debate MORE, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, John KerryJohn KerryObama administration officials ramp up push for Pacific pact Overnight Defense: GOP leaders express concerns after 9/11 veto override | Lawmakers press for Syria 'plan B' | US touts anti-ISIS airstrikes No GOP leaders attending Shimon Peres funeral MORE, Chuck HagelChuck HagelCreating a future for vets in DC Republicans back Clinton, but will she put them in Pentagon? There's still time for another third-party option MORE, Eric CantorEric CantorRyan seeks to avoid Boehner fate on omnibus GOPers fear trillion-dollar vote is inevitable Insiders dominate year of the outsider MORE, Jim DeMint, Charles SchumerCharles SchumerElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal 78 lawmakers vote to sustain Obama veto MORE, Darrell Issa, Barney Frank, Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Defense: GOP leaders express concerns after 9/11 veto override | Lawmakers press for Syria 'plan B' | US touts anti-ISIS airstrikes Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform Overnight Healthcare: Watchdog says ObamaCare program made illegal payments MORE and Ben Bernanke.
More than 395 members of Congress have attended at least one of the feasts. Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenOvernight Healthcare: Watchdog says ObamaCare program made illegal payments Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security MORE (D-Ore.) and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) were at the initial dinner on July 21, 1982.
Many journalists have attended the events, including Bob Schieffer, Cokie Roberts, Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman, Al Hunt, the late Bob Novak and editors and reporters from The Hill.
ACCF President and CEO Mark Bloomfield, who has moderated every dinner, said, “There is a certain chemistry that allows [members] to be frank.”
He notes that long-winded speeches and political talking points aren’t allowed, adding that he seeks to foster a back-and-forth discussion.
“I’m the warm-up act,” Bloomfield said. “I want to get people to feel at ease.”
Initially, Bloomfield held the events at his house. Now, the ACCF rents out a Capitol Hill townhouse owned by the Florida State Society.
Over drinks, Bloomfield starts the discussion on a hot economic topic, such as tax reform or the latest fiscal showdown in Congress.
Sometimes it gets heated, but he regularly tells his guests that “no caning” is allowed.
Attendees later head downstairs for dinner, where there are no assigned seats. Margo Thorning, the ACCF’s executive vice president, assumes the moderator role over a hot meal.
Some members pay for their dinners. Others first get clearance from congressional ethics committees, Bloomfield said.
A true measure of the success of the dinners is that lawmakers take time out of their hectic schedules to attend. “And they keep coming back,” Bloomfield said with a smile.
Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Grassley accuses Reid of 'pure unfiltered partisanship' California to allow experimental drug treatments for the terminally ill MORE (R-Wis.) said, “I always enjoy participating in the ACCF Economic Evening. This event allows for lively and interesting discussion in a venue conducive to bipartisan and bicameral dialogue. We need more of that.”
Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinSenate Democrat calls on Mexico to step up search for missing students Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override State official hints more Chinese firms being probed for N. Korean ties MORE (D-Md.), who is planning to attend Tuesday’s dinner, said, “It’s a unique opportunity to talk policy instead of politics and a true break from the political rhetoric in the Congress.”
Rep. Peter WelchPeter WelchEpiPen investigation shows need for greater pricing transparency, other reforms Dem lawmakers: Clinton should have disclosed illness sooner Former Clinton adviser unsure of security protections on server MORE (D-Vt.) crashed the event years ago after hearing about it from Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). He is now a regular.
“The dinners are a welcome relief from the partisan combat that is so endemic around here,” Welch said. “Members who go like it. ... You can let your political guard down.”
Welch said the business people who attend are not in “lobby mode” at the events, which occur about eight times a year.
The invited industry officials are ACCF contributors, which include corporations, associations and individuals.
Bloomfield said his so-called “salons” are different from others that have attracted controversy, such as the scandal over sponsored events that ensnared The Washington Post in 2009.
He stresses that his gatherings are bipartisan and that no money exchanges hands.
“This isn’t a fundraiser,” Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield credits former House Budget Committee Chairman James Jones (D-Okla.) with giving him the idea to start the dinners.
Jones, who is now a partner at Manatt-Jones Global Strategies, said lawmakers needed a “social setting” to get to know members and debate ideas. Other than congressional delegations, there is not much interaction among legislators, he said.
Bloomfield agrees: “Today, quite frankly, members of Congress don’t know each other.”
There is an enormous amount of trust at the dinners. A clear sign of that, Jones said, is that there’s never been a leak of what was discussed over steak and wine.
“That’s remarkable,” Jones said.
Asked what has changed since 1982, Bloomfield said the level of frustration among lawmakers has increased. And the dinners haven’t broken Washington’s gridlock, Bloomfield acknowledges.
Along those lines, he told a story about an ACCF contributor who complained of inaction in Congress. He asked the donor if he wanted his money back.
The ACCF member replied, “No. You have to keep trying.”
Bloomfield, 62, says he has no plans of retiring. He is aiming to host the dinners for at least the next 10 years, he said.
There is a chance that someday Bloomfield might let cameras record the bipartisan chats.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” he said. “But I fear that some of the blunt talk would be curtailed.”