Ethics reform takes bite out of lobbyists’ restaurant spending

Ethics reform takes bite out of lobbyists’ restaurant spending

WASHINGTON —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Congress’ recent decision to adopt tough ethics reforms that include prohibiting lobbyists from wining and dining federal law-makers and their staffs could impact business at restaurants here and possibly elsewhere around the country. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

In an effort to curb influence-peddling abuses in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both agreed overwhelmingly to prohibit federal lawmakers from accepting free meals, gifts, trips and entertainment from lobbyists. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

For some restaurateurs operating inside the Beltway, that potentially could translate into as much as a 30-percent decrease in sales, according to estimates from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan [3] Washington. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

“[The new rulings] have created an aura of paranoia,” said RAMW president Lynne Breaux. “A lot of our members are concerned. This is not the solution to a very complex problem.” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Industry observers say the new restrictions will not just affect fine-dining restaurants either. John Gay, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the National Restaurant Association, said lobbyists tend to meet more often with congressional staffers for inexpensive meals than with law-makers themselves. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

“There are 535 members of Congress, but there are thousands of staff members,” he said. “Lobbyists probably have far more meals with staffers than with congressmen. It’s far from the case that every one goes to a nice restaurant, and often those meals might total only $30 or $40 for two.” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

The new ethics rules were drafted in response to several prominent lobbying scandals that have drawn public scrutiny in Washington and state capitals around the country. For example, in 2005 former California congressman Duke Cunningham confessed to taking more than $2.4 million in bribes and gifts—including $10,000 in free restaurant meals and hotel rooms. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

“Corruption in Congress was one of the biggest reasons Americans voted for change last fall,” Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan lobbying group, said in a recent statement. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Nevertheless, a Washington-based lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous called the ban “unfortunate,” saying that in an effort to address recent “lobbying scandals and other congressional shenanigans, Congress has banned legitimate meals and entertainment.” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

“Not everybody is [convicted lobbyist] Jack Abramoff,” said Larry Work, who owns and operates Sam & Harry’s and The Caucus Room [4] in Washington. “Why are they penalizing the vast majority of people?” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Lee Culpepper, vice president of federal government relations for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the former chief lobbyist for the NRA, said the new rules mark “a continuation” of a process begun several years ago. At that time, Congress ruled that a meal paid for by a lobbyist could not exceed $50 per person and annual expenditures could not exceed $100 in a given year for any lawmaker or staffer. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Brett Kappel, an attorney with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP in Washington specializing in government relations and lobbying, agreed that the new rules are “not particularly good news for the restaurant industry.” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

When the new Democrat-controlled House reconvened last month, it adopted rules barring its members and their staffs from accepting most free restaurant meals from lobbyists or the firms or trade groups that employ them. Soon afterward, the Senate passed a bill essentially establishing a similar set of rules for its members and staffers. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

While the Senate bill has yet to be enacted by the House and signed by the president, Senate offices already are operating as if it had been passed, according to Kappel. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

The rules apply on a nationwide basis, Kappel said, so congressional staffers located in state capitals and elsewhere also would be governed by the same restrictions. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Kappel noted that there are several exceptions to the no-free-meal rule, though. Lobbyists or corporations can pay for the food at large events as long as there are 25 or more people in attendance who are not members of Congress and the events are largely open to the public. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

The measure also includes what has come to be referred to in Washington as “the toothpick rule.” Free food considered to be “part of a meal”—in other words, which guests might consume while sitting at a table laid out with china and silverware—cannot be served at an event, Kappel said. But food that can be eaten while standing—various hand-held hors d’oeuvres, for example—is acceptable. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

In addition, fundraising events held at restaurants are allowed under the new rules. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Companies that do not employ professional lobbyists are exempt from the rules, however, and still may entertain lawmakers and staffers in restaurants. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Such regulations are not restricted to federal lawmakers either. Several states, including Maryland, already have adopted similar measures. Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said lobbyists are restricted from entertaining legislators or staff members in restaurants unless they are entertaining an entire committee or countywide delegation. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

As a result, though, a number of restaurants in Annapolis have expanded their private-party facilities to take advantage of the ruling, he said, adding, “People are making the most of it.” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

Even with the new federal rulings in place, Work said he expects private-party revenues to remain a large piece of his business at Sam & Harry’s and The Caucus Room. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

At the same time, the NRA’s Gay said he does not expect the new lobbying restrictions will negatively impact the trade group’s ability to work with Congress. —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.

“We have a lot of tools in our toolbox,” he said. “We have a great staff in Washington, a good-sized [political action committee], great research capabilities, communications and lobbyists. We also have an actively engaged board and membership. Not every trade association has all of that. Our views will still get heard.” —There’s no free lunch in Washington anymore.