Restaurants Lobbying to Keep D.C.'s Free Lunch

Times Staff Writer

The three positions with the most sway over Congress, it can be argued, are majority leader of the Senate, speaker of the House and maitre d’ of the Palm.

Almost as much political business gets done over double-cut lamb chops at the elite watering hole -- and at similar establishments throughout the city -- as under the Capitol dome. It’s no wonder, then, that talk of making it illegal for lobbyists to pick up a lawmaker’s tab has the local restaurant community all whipped up.

So, in classic Washington style, restaurateurs have dispatched their lobbyists to lobby against efforts to control lobbying.

When asked if the proposed meal ban would affect her business, Christianne Ricchi, chef and owner of I Ricchi, said: “Absolutely, yes. It’s hard to put a number on it. There are ancillary deals and conversations happening all the time. But when Congress is out of town, business goes down, and Washington turns into this sleepy little town. It’s very evident.”


The proposed meal provision is part of the Senate’s response to embarrassing scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this year to conspiring to bribe lawmakers, and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), who was recently sent to prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

Abramoff owned Signatures, a popular restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue that was regularly filled with political heavyweights -- some of whom felt free to run up big tabs and never settle up.

But critics say a ban on free meals for senators would punish the hard-working restaurateur more than the offending lobbyist, who could continue to schmooze unrestricted at lush golf courses, lavish fundraisers and fancy convention parties.

“A lot of our members are concerned,” said Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Assn. of Metropolitan Washington, which has about 600 members. “It’s not as if you can buy a congressman or their staff with a dinner. This is not the solution to the problem.”

Like many in the debate over lobbying reform, Breaux (no relation to former U.S. Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, who is now a Washington lobbyist) urges an approach that emphasizes “more transparency” -- making sure contacts between lobbyists and lawmakers are thoroughly documented rather than further restricted.

Local restaurant owners once estimated that their revenue, like taxi fares, dipped about 30% when Congress took a recess. The effect lessened as Washington’s tourism grew, but politics still drives the town’s economy. With the average restaurant profit margin a scant 4% nationally, small losses can be hard-felt, association leaders said.

Under current law, lawmakers and their employees can let lobbyists treat them to meals worth less than $50, with a yearly ceiling of $100 paid for by the same individual or firm.

Lobbyists and restaurateurs contend that Abramoff’s excesses were aberrations that smeared Washington’s long-held habit of mixing business with pleasure. Some lobbyists wine and dine more than others, but Abramoff’s brazenness painted them all with the same broad brush, they believe.


“What he was doing is unrecognizable compared to what I do on a day-to-day basis,” said John Gay, a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Assn.

Checking his calendar for his most recent dining date with a member of Congress or an aide, he went back four weeks before finding one. He said the lawmaker paid that day.

Many opponents of the proposed meal restriction say it shows that Congress’ response to the recent scandals is driven more by political grandstanding than common sense.

“It sounds good to ban meals rather than explain how it’s a useful part of getting to know people who represent Americans here in Washington,” Gay said. “It’s how you develop relationships. It’s how you learn who to trust when making decisions that affect people beyond the Beltway.”


Government watchdog groups generally favor the meal proposal. “I think most of the American people already expected their representatives to pay their own way,” said Roberta Baskin, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity.

But Baskin and others see the free lunch as among the least of Washington’s influence-peddling problems. They are more concerned that it appears Congress will leave intact what they view as the real source of influence exercised by lobbyists: the sizable campaign contributions they generate. Gay and other dining industry lobbyists have worked to thwart the proposed meal ban, sending letters to every member of Congress opposing it and talking to as many lawmakers and aides as they can reach.

The effort could be paying off. The Senate bill that includes the meal provision has been shelved for several weeks. The House appears disinclined to impose the meal prohibition on its members, leaning instead toward requiring lobbyists to more fully disclose any gift they bestow on lawmakers.

“It’s on the back burner for now, pardon the pun,” Breaux said.


Regardless of what -- if any -- changes are made, some habits will not die, said Tommy Jacomo, the Palm’s general manager.

His restaurant, he said, “will still be a place where deals get done, whether it’s in the private sector, commercial business or politics. Let’s face it, there are just some things that never change inside the Beltway.”