WASHINGTON (AFP) — It looks much like the rest of the furniture in the United States Senate, but one desk harbors a secret power giving it the unique capacity to unite the deeply-divided chamber — it’s full of sugary treats.
The “candy desk” — replete with chocolates, sticky lollies and other goodies capable of sweetening even the most laborious voting session — has been legislators’ guilty pleasure for more than half a century.
Situated near a busy entrance on the Republican side, this saccharine stockpile requires a storekeeper of sorts to make sure it is always full.
During periods of intense negotiation, like the scrummage over spending and debt that has preoccupied senators in recent weeks, it is a responsibility that the nation’s legislators take seriously.
“I can assure you that the candy desk is now, and will continue to be, well stocked,” the current incumbent, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, told AFP.
You’ll have to take the Republican senator’s word for it, as pictures of the mahogany bureau, with its writing box, bookshelves and ventilation grills, are extremely rare thanks to a Senate rule proscribing photography.
Senators enjoy oratory — especially their own — and keep unconventional hours. A vote on even the most ostensibly straightforward issue can take all night.
The idea of the candy desk isn’t really to keep the legislators well-nourished during these never-ending debates.
But with almost a third of senators well into their 70s and beyond, the august body needs all the ambrosia it can get to keep the members perky in the small hours.
During Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, an important procedural priority was the transfer of large boxes of candy through the corridors of power to Toomey’s workstation.
The senator has been the candy desk’s gatekeeper-in-chief since 2015, and it is clear he considers the trust bestowed in him to oversee this most sacred of duties a personal honor.
“But it is also just the natural order of things that the senator from Pennsylvania would have the candy desk, since we lead America, and the world, in candy-making,” he enthuses.
Toomey makes a strong case: some 200 candy-makers, including the world-renowned Hershey’s, operate in the Keystone State, in a sector employing some 10,000 workers.
Senators are generally not allowed to accept gifts, but there are exceptions, such as for low-value products that are sent from their home states to be handed out free-of-charge.
The tradition began in 1968, when California Republican George Murphy, an accomplished actor and dancer with an eye for a crowd-pleasing gesture, was allocated the desk.
Known for his sweet tooth, he would invite colleagues to share the treats he had stashed to get through the long hours of speechmaking.
The ritual was kept alive by subsequent custodians, including Republican presidential candidates John McCain of Arizona and Rick Santorum, who sat there during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
‘Keeping senators awake’
“It’s actually a very important part of keeping senators awake during these long hours of testimony,” Santorum, another Pennsylvanian, told public radio station NPR last year.
Santorum regales colleagues with a lesser-known controversy from Clinton’s 1999 acquittal for lying under oath during the Monica Lewinsky scandal — when the 42nd president’s legal team complained that they were being denied their rightful access to the candy.
To the wider public, it may not have been the most consequential point of order, but Santorum was keenly aware of the injustice, and made a point of ensuring confectionary equity in even this most adversarial of scenarios.
To argue that the candy desk is some totem of bipartisan comity might be to sugar-coat the issue, however.
In Washington, even over-indulging on candy can be a party political issue, and the Democrats have thrown down the gauntlet with their own operation to rival Toomey’s.
“My desk is now the candy desk. Yes, he’s on the Republican side. I’m on the Democratic side,” asserts Cory Booker, who generously doled out M&Ms, the brightly colored morsels of Americana made in his home state of New Jersey, during Donald Trump’s impeachment trials.
Booker, though, says he’s open to contributing some of his bounty to Toomey’s trove of delights.
“Small acts of kindness make the world go round,” he says with a grin.