Office Christmas parties are an annual tradition that some people love and others hate. But either way, you’re expected to attend. Many private companies throw their parties as a year-end thank you. But in the case of federal government employees, they’re on the hook to fund their own parties. Which is kind of bullshit.
I filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests over the past two months with various government agencies, asking for budget records for any holiday parties thrown in December of last year. Every agency that got back to me in time for this post, including agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Health and Human Services (HHS), all said that office Christmas parties were paid for by their employees.
This relatively new tradition of making federal government employees pay for their own holiday parties dates back to the early Obama years. During the George W. Bush administration, annual holiday parties were sometimes extravagant events. Agencies like the Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice both threw some real ragers back in the day, with “lots of food” and open bars.
But by 2011, almost every federal agency had decided that taxpayer funded Christmas parties didn’t look good when the country was still reeling from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis—which is fair enough. But I’d argue that they’ve gone too far in the other direction, depriving government employees of a simple party that they now have to pay for personally.
As a FOIA Officer at Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) told me over the phone, they haven’t had a taxpayer-funded Christmas party in many, many years. They take up a collection around the office and fund one themselves, which he said can be kind of sad when Christmas bonuses are light. He said last year they got a bonus of around $200-$300. This year he said they weren’t expecting a bonus at all.
In a climate like this, the government should indeed foot the bill for a modest party. Just because the government doesn’t pay for holiday parties anymore doesn’t mean that they’ve become optional. Government workers, like those in the private sector, are socially obligated to participate in their office gatherings. But now they have to reach into their own pockets to do so. I propose that we let these employees spend a few hundred bucks from the government till and get some bags of Cheetos and handle of Jack Daniels. They’ve earned it.
“We note that holiday parties, when held, are hosted and funded by OSHA employees and not by OSHA,” one letter I received from OSHA read in response to my FOIA request. OSHA was never throwing ragers like the Department of Agriculture, but nonetheless they’ve been stripped of a simple holiday party.
I realize that advocating for more government spending is like advocating for puppy murder in these dark times. The Department of Health and Human Services FOIA Officer told me that all of their holiday parties are potluck style where everyone brings a dish. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But what’s wrong with letting HHS employees spend a few bucks of their budget on a modest Christmas party?
You know who has great Christmas parties? All the defense companies that get rich off government contracts. The US Coast Guard responded to my FOIA request by saying that they don’t have any budget files on holiday parties thrown last year. But private defense companies like Raytheon throw some of the best parties around at venues like the Beverly Hilton here in Los Angeles. At the end of the day, American taxpayers more or less paid for those parties with healthy government contracts doled out to companies like Raytheon.
“In response to your request, office holiday parties are unofficial events, and the government may not use appropriated funds to pay for them,” another letter I received from Customs and Border Protection noted. “No use of appropriated funds would be approved for office holiday parties and as such, there would be no records that are responsive to your request.”
The Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency was the only agency of those that responded which sent me some internal emails about their 2015 holiday party. As it turns out, the Director and Deputy Director of that agency paid for the majority of their Christmas party. Employees were encouraged to bring extra dishes to make sure that there was food enough for everybody and other managers were encouraged to chip in financially.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the government should foot the bill for expensive, over-the-top parties. I just think that government workers should get roughly the same as private sector workers when it comes to the tiny perks of office life. Or, if you don’t consider your annual holiday party a perk, then at least something you don’t have to spend money on.
A modest Christmas party is normal, and if the social obligation makes it more or less mandatory to attend, the employer (public or private) should be paying for it. If there’s really a war on Christmas, this battle against paid office parties might be closer to the truth than anything Bill O’Reilly dreams up.