The Politics of Congress' Candy Desk

Photo: U.S. Senate

In this age of partisan politics, there are very few things that both sides of the aisle can agree on. One of them is the "candy desk." While it may be officially known as desk #80, over the last five decades it's earned its sweeter moniker. Located in the last row, on the aisle and adjacent to the heavily-used elevators on the Republican side of the chamber, this nearly two-century-old mahogany desk is stocked full of deliciously, donated confections. "People share candy at work," Cuneyt Dil, who wrote an article about it for DCist earlier this month, told FWx, "This is the Congressional equivalent of that bowl... or desk, in this case."

It's a tradition that dates back to 1965 to when former Hollywood actor and singer George Murphy was elected to the Senate. As is custom for freshman senators, the California Republican was assigned to a back row seat. Always the type who liked to entertain, legend has it that Murphy kept candy in his desk to satisfy not only his own sweet tooth but fellow Senators from both parties as well. While this probably made him popular among his colleagues, it didn't matter to voters. In 1971, Murphy was voted out of office after only one term. However, his candy desk endured. Republican Arizona Senator Pat Fannin took over the desk and continued this new tradition, however only giving away hard candies. Several other candy-giving senators followed, but it wasn't until 1985 when Washington Senator Slade Gorton took it over and the candy desk was finally revealed to the public. Gorton did things a little differently, by offering candies made in his home state of Washington to promote local businesses.

Other senators have continued this aspect of the tradition since, and it's become a source of pride with notables like John McCain, George Voinovich and Rick Santorum all at one point occupying the candy desk. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, it was such a big deal to Santorum that when given the option of moving his desk closer to the front due to his seniority, he declined. He'd rather stay at the candy desk.

It soon became clear to corporations and trade associations like Hershey's, Wrigley and the National Confectioners Association that it was an effective advertising strategy to "donate" candy to the desk. But important ethical questions arise from this, mainly that senators are forbidden from taking gifts worth $100 or more from a single source. When one is supplying an entire Senate with goodies, the price tag is sure to go beyond that. However, there's a provision buried deep in the Senate Code of Conduct that says donated product from the senator's home state is allowed as long as it is for free distribution and is available at all times to visitors. Yes, that can includes candy. So, Hershey is free to donate 38,000 Hershey's Kisses to Rick Santorum (which they did in 2007) because Santorum represents Pennsylvania and Hershey is based out of Pennsylvania. Same thing for former Illinois Senator Mark Kirk when Jelly Belly (who had a major factory in North Chicago until 2014) donated an assortment of jelly beans to be enjoyed and put in the desk.

But chocolate or jelly beans are not manufactured in every state. When Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas took over the desk in 2007, the Senate went into a sugar shock. Unlike Pennsylvania, Illinois, or even Minnesota (where there's a Starburst factory), there's no major candy manufacturing done in Wyoming. The National Confectioners Association only exacerbated the panic when they came out with statement saying that they would not help with candy supplying, "We're happy to provide candy if there are [association] members," a spokesperson from the trade association told the Wall Street Journal, "It would be difficult for us to do now." Eventually, Thomas got several small Wyoming confectioners to showcase their items and the crisis was averted. Today, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania occupies the venerable desk and all is sweet. "I campaigned for this assignment on the platform of life, liberty, and the pursuit of Peeps," Toomey said in a statement when he first got the desk, "and (I) hope Pennsylvania's treats will sweeten the bitter partisan atmosphere."

Because of the desk's placement in the Senate chamber, it has always been under Republican control, but that could change this year. Due to a certain reality television star at the top of the Republican ticket, there's a possibility- although remote - that the Democrats could win a majority of seats (including Toomey's), taking back the Senate and taking over the candy desk. If that happens, candy lovers don't have to worry. In a response to the Republicans' sweet offerings, the Democrats also established their own "candy desk" (albeit less famous and trafficked). When it comes to having a sweet tooth, that's something everyone can support.

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