At this week's grand opening party for Google Inc.'s new Washington D.C. offices, South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford stood near trays of peach cobbler milkshakes and maple-bacon doughnuts. Chefs bustled at an open kitchen in the center of the vast entertaining space. A DJ cued a song whose title captured the tenor of Google's latest outreach to lawmakers: "Happy."
Young Googlers, as the company calls its workers, milled around meatball stations and a bar with "molecular" gin and tonics, amid hundreds of politicians, lobbyists and other guests. California Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was there, along with Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.
Dispelling any doubt that visitors were standing at a major intersection of technology and government, it was spelled out in the new office's ninth-floor lobby. Printed on the floor is a map of Washington -- the Google Maps version -- with a big red pin at the address, 25 Massachusetts Avenue NW, just north of Capitol Hill.
Google Maps shows it's a long walk from here to the lobbyists on K Street, and from Google's old downtown offices. It's a much shorter one to the offices of Senator Kay Hagan, the North Carolina Democrat, another party attendee.
"We are the nexus of Washington and Silicon Valley, and in a lot of ways we find ourselves the interpreters in both directions for the two," Google's vice president of public policy, Susan Molinari, said yesterday.
It's a given, by now, that Google is a leader in free food, on-site massages and foosball for its employees. It's also no secret that the tech giant has become one of America's top lobbying spenders. In its public unveiling of the new Washington office last night, Google showed how it may propose to stay ahead of the pack on both fronts.
The office's 54,000 square feet, for 110 employees, is a mere satellite compared with the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California. Still, it's home to several dining areas, a video-game room, a treadmill with a computer (the "walking desk") and space-age capsules for afternoon naps. People are encouraged to bring their dogs to work. Cats can stay at home.
"This is my favorite," said Molinari said, showing visitors an on-site diner built to look like an old rail car, with bench seating and long milkshake straws on the table, a nod to America's golden age.
Molinari's position makes her, in effect, the chief lobbyist for a lobbying powerhouse. A onetime New York Republican congresswoman -- she was the keynote speaker at the 1996 Republican National Convention -- Molinari, 56, joined Google in 2012 and says she helped scout real estate for the new office. The mother of two, she calls the office her "third child."
Exhibits showcase Google's latest products, like Google Fiber, a high-speed Internet service. The bright reception area has a model about 4-feet-tall of a Ferris wheel in primary colors -- Googlers at the event weren't immediately able to explain its significance -- and the requisite flat screens showing trends on the search engine.
"Every hallway, every wall tells a story of a great achievement, a great discovery," she said. Conference rooms are named after inventors including George Washington Carver and Becky Schroeder, which, according to Google, is the youngest female to obtain a U.S. patent, at the age of 10.
The office is supposed to "demystify" technology for Washington's influential class, in Molinari's words, bringing what seems like science fiction into tangible focus. "Innovation is happening, and it's not just from mad scientists."
"We want to allow people who come in here to get themselves to a place that the message of innovation is problem solving, and it's told in so many different ways," she said.
Google has a lot riding on that. It reported spending $15.8 million in 2013 on lobbying, making it fifth among corporations behind Northrop Grumman Corp., Comcast Corp., General Electric Co. and AT&T Inc., according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington organization that tracks money in politics. During the first three months of this year, Google spent $4.1 million, making it No. 3 among lobbying corporations.
Google's lobbying presence has grown in the past decade as its acquisitions, Internet search rankings and privacy practices have come under scrutiny in Washington. The Federal Trade Commission in 2013 closed a 20-month investigation into whether Google favored its own services in results provided by its search engine, the world's largest. Google also settled FTC allegations it misused patents owned by Motorola Mobility to thwart competitors in smartphone technology.
Google agreed to pay $22.5 million in 2012 to settle FTC claims the company improperly planted cookies on Apple Inc.'s Safari Internet browser. Additional privacy and safety concerns are likely to arise from Google projects in the works, including nose-mounted Google Glass computers and self-driving cars. European governments, which have pressed the U.S. to strengthen its online privacy laws, recently passed "right to be forgotten" laws that have already caused logistical headaches for the company there.
Among the 110 Washington staff members that Google moved here last month are more than 30 government affairs specialists, focusing on the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The came from a space that Niki Christoff, a Google public relations director, who at one time worked in the company's California headquarters, characterized as a ho-hum office downtown filled with "bean bags and lava lamps."
"This office is more interesting," said Christoff, in front of the Google Fiber wall, "because it gives us more opportunity to show off our products."