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This Press Club Is Quite Flush

It’s called the Capitol Hill Press Club, but it may be the least likely place on Capitol Hill to find a reporter.

The unmarked door between Cafe Recess and Bubbles hair salon is more like the United Nations than the united press — it is a warren of ideologically diverse political organizations, fundraisers and empty offices where Members of Congress and staff can escape the nonpolitics rules of their Congressional suites and dial for dollars for a few hours.

It is a quiet hive that will likely generate millions of dollars in political money over the next year.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Members and political action committees of both parties have paid the landlord just over $750,000 since January 2003 for rent or office space. Some of the payments are made out to the Capitol Hill Press Club, others to Dan Williams, the landlord.

And millions of dollars’ worth of contributions have been made out to organizations with a 209 Pennsylvania Ave. SE address, in part because the organizations don’t really live there — but their fundraisers do.

Williams told Roll Call that he is proud of the fact that the 56 offices he rents above the commercial strip two blocks from the Capitol represent a diverse political spectrum.

“Dick Gephardt and Dick Armey had offices here at the same time,— Williams said, referring to the former Democratic Majority Leader from Missouri and the former Republican Majority Leader from Texas. He has had anti-abortion and abortion rights groups renting space in the same building; the presidential campaign of liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has been a tenant, as has Republicans Abroad, a nonprofit that helps GOP activists overseas remain engaged in the U.S. political process.

“They are not allowed to get political or protest in here — it is strictly professional,— Williams said. “Everybody’s cordial … but we don’t have a lot of mixers.—

Spokesmen for both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee said they have space available in their headquarters buildings near the Capitol where Members and staff can go to make fundraising calls, but those spaces have some disadvantages.

The Democratic call room is a shared space, not private offices, and demand for the space is frequently so great that Members are left standing in the lobby making calls, a source said. Likewise, at the NRCC, no facility exists where a Member can set up a temporary office for a few days for a visiting staff member, a Republican staffer said.

The most striking thing about the place on Pennsylvania Avenue is the money that flows through it.

According to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, FEC records indicate that in the 2008 election cycle nearly $3 million was paid by political committees and candidates to entities with an address at 209 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Some of that was rent to Williams, and several thousand dollars went to Cafe Recess for catering fees, but the bulk of it was checks written to Members with addresses in the building.

For political money, Williams’ buildings — there are actually seven of them, he said — have one feature that no other space can offer: location.

Since they are just steps from the House offices, it is easy for Members of Congress or staff to hop over to make fundraising calls or hold political meetings that are forbidden within the Capitol complex itself. One afternoon last week, Roll Call called the reception desk, and the call was accidentally picked up by a Congressional staff member who was on a break, doing political work. It is not only legal, it is the kind of hideaway that House rules essentially require.

Several staff members who have used the “club— say their offices treat it as a rent-a-desk center. None of the staff members whose bosses rent space in the building would allow their names to be used for this story.

Several fundraising companies have permanent offices there, which serve as mail-drops for the campaigns they serve. Payments made to campaigns flow into the building, though neither the Member nor the campaign pays rent there.

Williams also has arrangements with a few tenants to provide “virtual offices— — temporary office space for a few days or a few hours, which is perfect for political professionals who come to town and cannot conduct business in the Capitol.

One staff member said the complex has several offices that provide simply a desk, a telephone and Internet service, like an overgrown phone booth, and he uses whichever is available when he goes to make political calls.

“It’s a place where Members and staff can go to do campaign work,— this source said. “We’re doing our fundraising calls from here.—

Another said the campaign political director flies into town for a few days each month and sets up shop at 209 Pennsylvania Ave.

“That is basically a satellite office,— this source said. “We pay them rent … we don’t have a separate office there, but we can use the space when [the political director] is in town and the boss wants to make phone calls.—

A third office said the Member’s campaign has a full-time fundraiser on staff who also runs the Member’s leadership PAC and has a permanent office in the club complex.

According to FEC records, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has paid rent to the Capitol Hill Press Club for both his campaign and his PAC, as has Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cantor’s predecessor as Whip. Democratic Reps. Steven Rothman (N.J.) and Ed Markey (Mass.) also pay rent there.

A few years ago, Williams posted a Web site offering a range of rental options, including “Offices by the Hour,— with the following description:

“In Washington for a few days? Far more professional than doing business out of a hotel room, this service allows for the traveling professional to establish a temporary business address on Capitol Hill. The renter is given full access to the parcel pick-up and delivery service, a large conference area, a receptionist that can assist with your clerical needs, high speed internet connection, phone and voice mail, couriers, scanners, digital cameras, and AV equipment, along with the security and privacy of your own office away from home.—

But Williams says he has never really rented offices this way. There are several long-term clients that he has allowed, over time, to reduce their office space to a virtual or occasional presence, but he is not interested in renting by the hour to fly-by-night tenants who have no history with him.

And what about the name? Like the virtual office, the “Capitol Hill Press Club— never really took off either.

Williams said he renovated a large conference room with the idea of inviting newsmakers and having press events, but it was up a narrow flight of stairs — too much trouble for camera crews to lug gear up — and the idea ultimately faded out. He said he doesn’t really use the name much anymore, though a delivery sign on the door refers to the building as the Press Club.

Williams said he has been on Capitol Hill since 1991, and he originally was doing energy consulting and some pro bono work — he co-authored a guidebook to the Energy Policy Act of 1992 — but ultimately decided he was better off switching to managing his real estate, where he has had real bipartisan success.

“I totally enjoy the fact that Democrats and Republicans and people on the different sides of an issue get along,— he said.