Big names on menu at Washington dinner

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.

Tuesday’s event, which will be held on Capitol Hill, will be the 200th dinner since the concept was hatched in 1982. They have occurred over five administrations, and amid wars and scandals.

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 GoreTrump is right, the system is rigged — and it has been for a long time Mark Cuban: Trump’s ‘denying democracy’ Trump: I'll accept election results — if I win MORE, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, John KerryJohn Kerry5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin US pledges to do all it can to fight 'grave threat' of nuclear North Korea Armani, Batali among guests at White House state dinner 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 CantorVA Dems jockey for Kaine's seat High anxiety for GOP Webb: Broken trust, broken party MORE, Jim DeMint, Charles SchumerCharles SchumerImmigration was barely covered in the debates GOP leaders advise members to proceed with caution on Trump Senate Dems demand answers from Wells Fargo over treatment of military MORE, Darrell Issa, Barney Frank, Paul RyanPaul RyanPoll: GOP has edge for open Wis. House seat In six new sanctuary states, Americans put at risk What the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress MORE and Ben Bernanke.

More than 395 members of Congress have attended at least one of the feasts. Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenSenators urge resolution of US, Canada softwood lumber deal What the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress Wyden seeks IRS info on firms linked to Panama Papers 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 JohnsonClub for Growth: Anti-Trump spending proved to be 'good call' Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage Is crumbling McCain: Accepting election results is 'American way' 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 CardinSanders, Dem senators press Obama to halt ND pipeline Dems to McConnell: Pass 'clean' extension of Iran sanctions Top Foreign Relations Dem: US needs to 'revisit' approach to Russia 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 WelchYahoo hack spurs push for legislation Retailers have jumped the shark EpiPen investigation shows need for greater pricing transparency, other reforms 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.”