A Guide to the Federal Government's Holiday Parties

It's not something the federal government likes to admit but every December, the faceless men and women of the U.S. government are allotted a holiday party to toast the year's successes. 

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It's not something the federal government likes to admit but every December, the faceless men and women of the U.S. government are allotted a holiday party to toast the year's successes.  Sometimes that toast is in the form of a Cabernet Sauvignon, other times it is literally a bottle of water. From department to department and office to office, no federal holiday party is exactly the same. So to get a flavor of the range of yuletide fetes, we reached out to everyday, hard-working bureaucrats in some of the government's biggest bureaucracies. Here's how they'll be reveling this week and next:

The Department of Agriculture In terms of pre-party hype, few offices are doing a better job promoting a holiday party than the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. In e-mails sent out to staff, the level of repetitious punctuation is off the charts. "Have you RSVPed yet????"

The enthusiasm and multi-colored fonts are not without cause. Unlike a number of government holiday parties that are dry (completely dry!), this one will be keg-fueled with "lots of food," an employee tells us. "Open bar, and games/prizes/dancing, etc."

It's not uncommon for federal office parties to be financed by the employees. (The fear of headlines entailing taxpayer-funded soirees amidst near 9 percent unemployment is not taken lightly.) What's unique about this upcoming party is each employee has to contribute by pay grade. From each according to his ability to each according to his need. In any case, the chili and baking contest pared with wine and cheese tastings sound like a win for this Dec. 14 party.

The State Department  At State, each assistant secretary has a party for his or her bureau. For the top brass, they have more upscale invite-only parties. Our source at State says a pot-luck style party is in the works for his division. "My office is doing snacks and refreshments and beer and wine. I doubt there'll be liquor," he said of the Dec. 9 party. Attendees are asked to bring a dessert, fruit or vegetable dip. "It's the kind of thing that ends on time," he said. "People want to get home." 

U.S Agency for International Development USAID, the agency created to "extend a helping hand to those people overseas struggling" has the welfare of its employees in mind as well. There's no shortage of event invitations floating around its offices, though details are scarce on the party specifics.

On Friday, the Asia and Middle East Bureaus are teaming up to host an in-office party encouraging employees to "Come celebrate Good Friends... Good Times ... and Peace for the World!" How cosmopolitan!

Another USAID party is happening at Local 16, a U St. watering hole with bad music and over-priced Yuengling. Word has it the agency is renting out the entire roof top for staffers and their guests. (Update: a USAID staffer e-mails us saying the party is funded by employees—not on the company dime.)

Finally, the USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs is hosting an in-office party on Dec. 16. The details are slim but the invite stationery is about as fancy as these things get (see below).

Central Intelligence Agency We weren't able to get any low-level spooks to open up about the CIA's secret mistletoe parties. But whatever's happening at the lower tier receptions, it appears the agency is getting more budget-conscious about these sorts of things. 

In late November, CIA Director David Petraeus informed guests that his holiday reception was called off due to budget cuts.. “I regret to advise that your invitation is not, in fact, lost in the mail,” his e-mail said. “Reflecting the constrained and possibly worsening fiscal climate, this year’s event has been greatly scaled back.”

Instead, the CIA's public affairs office is throwing a cocktail reception in January. That event promises hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar "(we promise at prices well below that of a beer on an airplane).”

Department of Energy Don't entertain any delusions of grandeur when it comes to the DOE's holiday party. They may have blown $535 million on Solyndra but compared to the other departments we spoke to, Energy has the lamest party in town. "Our tradition is for the Secretary [Steven Chu] to host a meet and greet to thank the workforce and wish them a happy Holiday season in the cafeteria of our HQ building," a DOE employee tells us. "There are not hors d'oeuvres or drinks or anything like that. Just a chance to shake the Secretary's hand and get a photo with him."

Department of Justice Justice's holiday parties used to be the talk of the town, according to The Washington Post. "For many years, the Justice Department party drew hundreds of officials, including top agency heads, some Supreme Court justices and other usually reclusive folks, who sampled fine hors d’oeuvres — we’re not talking munchies here -- excellent drinks and chatter." But this year, Attorney General Eric Holder's party has been cancelled.

The options available to party-seeking attorneys at Main Justice aren't great either. Like this party (invite on the right), hosted by the Office of the Inspector General—the same inspector general that uncovered the so-called $16 muffins, which never ended up existing. A track record like that doesn't necessarily exude confidence in hospitality expertise. 

Department of Defense Also conscious of budget constraints, we hear the Pentagon's exclusive holiday party limits +1s to spouses, leaving at least one high level staffer wishing his long-time girlfriend could tag along. Corroborating the department's scaled-back party, an official told the The Post that Defense chief Leon Panetta is "very cognizant of the economic circumstances” and has planned on "going smaller this year." 

National Institutes of Health The NIH, like many of the government's research-oriented agencies, benefits from a melting pot of employees from every corner of the earth. For one of the agency's larger gatherings, held by the Office of the Clinical Director, it's hosting an alphabetically-optimized potluck just days away from Christmas on Dec. 22. Apparently, this is a very uninhibited environment, as staffers who are able to perform "musical talents and would like to participate in holiday caroling" are asked to contact the organizers.

NIH staffers also splits off into smaller holiday gatherings hosted at the homes of managers and directors. One such host tells us he plans on entertaining 15 or 20 employees this year. "People usually bring dishes from their own countries. Something from Korea, hopefully not a lot of German food. Also wine, appetizers, chips and salsa, cheese and bread," he said. "I rarely go to the parties at work because they're not fun."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.