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House Money

Congress' Food Tab: $604,000 for Bottled Water, $152 at Quiznos

Jul 21, 2010 – 7:50 AM
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Ernie Smith Contributor

(July 21) -- Crave ribs? Bagels and coffee or doughnuts? Seafood, subs or Chinese? So does Congress!

House members spent part of their Members Representational Allowances on these items -- and more -- during the nine-month period between late 2009 and early 2010 covered by the Sunlight Foundation's House Expenditure Reports Database. The info is highly enlightening, revealing, for instance, the popularity of Chantilly Donut's sinkers; what it costs to feed hungry congressional pages; and how lucrative it can be to own a part of the cottage industry of keeping our duly elected representatives fed and well hydrated.

According to the documents, Democrat Gregorio Sablan, the first-ever House delegate for the Northern Mariana Islands, spent more on food than any other legislator, racking up a tab of $23,457. The second-place legislator, Texas Republican Michael Burgess, spent $17,515.

One company in particular raked in the taxpayer dough: CapitolHost. At least 61 legislators and 20 congressional offices used the catering service, to the tune of about $169,143. But that's only the tip of the iceberg salad, as you'll see below.

To read more of AOL News' audit of Congress' expense reports, please visit the first installment in this series.

Note: Unfortunately, we can't tell you how many burgers your representative ate. The disbursements data only itemizes where the various offices spent their money, not what they bought. (Before going digital, the disbursements did in fact get that specific.) Nor can we tell you what items they bought with the $276,461 in food purchases charged through Citibank, which provides a government credit card service -- the fees all show up as "Citibank," rather than the individual vendor.

The House's overall tab

  • $2.6 million spent on food and beverages for reps and their staffers
  • $604K
    Spent on bottled water -- in 19,000 individual line items, many for Nestle's Deer Park water-delivery subsidiary
  • $397K
    Spent on catering -- CapitolHost is easily the largest caterer serving the House, though there's plenty to go around here

Catering to our nation's leaders

  • The Wares of Myriad firms have Gone Down the Congressional Gullet. They include Pennsylvania institution Crocodile Catering (tagline: "Great since 8/8/88!"), D.C.'s tasty-sounding Honey Biscuits and Virginia Beach's The Gourmet Gang (which makes us imagine a pack of miscreants wielding spatulas and egg beaters for weapons). All of which suggests taxpayers' money is going toward encouraging the proliferation of catering firms with funny names. More catering tidbits:
  • 59 companies, big and small, catered to legislators and their staffers
  • $7,536
    The amount Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings spent on catering -- more than any other legislator
  • $124K
    Spent on Occasions Caterers, which had just three House offices as clients
  • $23K
    Spent on catering services by Betty Crudup -- who we hope isn't doing all the work by herself

The go-to for gourmet grub

  • Wolfgang Puck's fancy new restaurant Has traction -- at least with congress. Restaurant Associates, the company that helps run Puck's newish D.C. restaurant, The Source (along with offering fancy digs in the Kennedy Center), has a fairly large share of House food expenditures. The company also does catering -- which might explain the Committee on Foreign Affairs' massive one-time charge.
  • $63,016 spent with Restaurant Associates
  • $35,824
    The amount the Committee on Foreign Affairs spent with the firm (a kickin' international theme party, perhaps?)

Can't legislate without caffeine

  • large or small, industrial or retail, coffee companies make up a sizable chunk of house expenses. Part of this is because the top firm in this category, Joe Ragan's Coffee, also sells some office supplies, too. More full-service than Starbucks, it was responsible for a little more than half of all coffee-related expenditures.
  • $84,794 spent with coffee-centric companies
  • 7,743
    Pounds of coffee beans (at $10.95 each) could be bought with that much money

BBQ: The people's food

  • It's A pretty common thread in the data: Lots of regional barbecue places showed up on the list, from spots in Kansas City to Denver to Birmingham, Mich. Unsurprisingly, there weren't a lot of vegetarian restaurants among lawmakers' favored eateries -- veggie burgers don't have quite the bipartisan appeal of burnt ends or baby back ribs. (Put another way: Your tax money is literally paying for pork!)
  • $10,673 spent with barbecue restaurants
  • $3,649
    The amount the House's Committee on Homeland Security spent on Gates Bar-B-Q, a Kansas City, Mo., institution

Other tasty morsels of data

  • $37K
    The amount the House spent with the Good Food Co., which specializes in day care food
  • $8,786
    The amount spent on food and drink at various colleges and universities (a science center also showed up as a $1,595 food expense)

Who Ate All That Food?

  • Congressional pages Don't Work on an Empty Stomach. One of the top overall food expenses was logged to FreedomPay, a company that makes it easy to buy food in the cafeteria without cash -- something that seems less necessary as an employee using a debit or credit card, but more so when you're a junior in high school. The expense was tied to the Page Revolving Fund, set aside for all those teenagers who do congressional grunt work. (The fund also paid for a number of nonfood things like "resident activities" and piano maintenance.) Thanks to FreedomPay expenditures, the pages' office plunked down more for food than any other House office.
  • $209,673
    Amount spent by the Page Revolving Fund
  • » Other top food-purchasing offices: In second place is the Democratic Caucus, which spent more than half of its $193,557 in food expenditures on a weekend getaway at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. Waaaaaaay behind that is the Office of the Speaker, which spent nearly three-quarters of its $83,341 in expenditures with Occasions Caterers.
  • » Maybe it should be renamed the Chow-Down Committee? The House Committee on Foreign Affairs spent $40,479 on food, all of it on catering. The total was five times the amount spent by the next-hungriest committee, Homeland Security.

The hungriest guy in the House

  • Who's Gregorio Sablan? He's the Democratic House delegate for the Northern Mariana Islands (which didn't even have a delegate until after the 2008 elections), who spent more on food than any other legislator. In fact, Sablan spent $6,000 more than the second-place legislator, Texas Republican Michael Burgess, who spent $17,515.
  • $23,457amount of Sablan's total expenses
  • $5,127
    Amount spent in Sablan's name specifically
  • $3,000
    Amount spent at Saipan's Hyatt Regency by Sablan staffers
  • » Big names not far behind: After Sablan and Burgess is Guam Delegate Madeleine C. Bordallo ($17,374), whose travel expenses are also quite high. And behind her are two of the most powerful guys in Congress: Rep. John Conyers ($16,157), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor ($13,454).

Which Party Is Hungrier?

  • Because we wanted to compare the two parties' equivalent offices, we left the speaker out of it. The Office of the Speaker did, however, spend $83,341, most of it with one catering company. But beyond Nancy Pelosi, here's how offices common to both parties -- majority and minority leaders and whips, as well as party caucuses -- spent money on food:
  • $298,734
    Amount spent by the Democratic Party's largest offices -- the Democratic Caucus, the Office of the Majority Leader and the Office of the Majority Whip

What Democrats bought

  • Call it a Staffers' Binge. Beyond the already-mentioned weekend getaway to Williamsburg, Va. (which cost $114,925), three top staffers -- two for the Democratic Caucus and one for the majority whip -- were reimbursed as individuals for $87,611. Those four items alone account for $202,536 of the total -- or nearly what the GOP's main offices spent. Other details:
  • $985
    The amount Democratic leadership spent on Chantilly Donuts
  • $2,362
    The amount Democratic leadership spent at Corner Bakery Cafe

What Republicans bought

  • Hard to say, as Most of it is hidden behind debit cards. The bulk of GOP reps' expenses -- around $144,146 -- was spent through Citibank, so there's no itemized data. Another $34,427, however, was spent with CapitolHost, by far the largest catering company they used. Other details:
  • $2,076
    The amount GOP leadership spent on Chantilly Donuts
  • $9,374
    The amount GOP leadership spent with coffee companies
To see what Congress shelled out in other spending categories, click here.

Ernie Smith is the editor of
ShortFormBlog, a news site equally obsessed with numbers and bad jokes.
Filed under: Nation, Politics
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