Lobbying Rules Tough to Swallow for D.C. Eateries

The House and Senate are adopting new ethics rules on lobbyists that would prohibit them from buying meals for lawmakers. The rules could crimp the style of many a restaurateur in Washington, D.C.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's catch up on a side effect of an attempt to cut back on corruption. The House of Representatives adopted tighter ethics rules governing lobbyists and the Senate is moving in the same direction. These changes were a campaign pledge from Democrats who promised to end what they called a culture of corruption in Washington.

As NPR's Ben Bergman reports, the rules may also change the culture of Washington lunches.

BEN BERGMAN: In the dining room of Charlie Palmer Steak, a rock pool decorated with flowers chills the massive wine cellar perched above. You can take your pick of thousands of wines, including one from every state. Once you've ordered drinks, time to consider the main course.

Mr. BRYAN VOLTAGGIO (Executive Chef, Charlie Palmer Steak): Right now we have hickory-smoked salmon over a ragu of leeks and fingerling potatoes or cured tomatoes.

BERGMAN: Executive chef Bryan Voltaggio is worried about getting the food out fast enough to meet the busy lunch demand. But he's also worried business may not be so brisk in the future. Charlie Palmer is located just down the hill from the Capitol building. That makes it convenient for lobbyists who want to wine and dine lawmakers or high-ranking congressional staffers. But under the new rules, that's banned. No more free meals from lobbyists.

Ms. LYNN BRO(ph) (President, Restaurant Trade Group): It seems downright un-American.

BERGMAN: Lynn Bro is president of the trade group that represents DC Restaurants. For her, the new rules aren't just a threat to business.

Ms. BRO: To stop such a natural human sociological phenomena such as dining with cohorts is creating an aura of paranoia in the city that, even if they pay their way, somebody is going to see somebody dining with somebody and get in trouble for it.

BERGMAN: Much of the paranoia is probably the fault of Jack Abramoff. He's the once-powerful super lobbyist who defrauded Indian tribes. Last year, he pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Abramoff used to entertain lawmakers at his own high-priced restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. But lobbyists like Paul Miller say Abramoff was just one bad apple.

Mr. PAUL MILLER (Former President, American League of Lobbyists) If you want to call me corrupt, walk in my shoes with me for a week and you'll find out just at times how boring this job really can be.

BERGMAN: Miller lobbies for small businesses and seniors. He just finished his term as the president of the American League of Lobbyists, where he had the unenviable task of trying to improve the image of lobbyists.

Mr. MILLER: You read in the papers that we're meeting with all these members of Congress, we're just flying around the country and going to golf outings, and all this other stuff. It's not. It's a lot of research. It's a lot of detail we're providing them with information on the issues that we represent from the clients that hire us.

BERGMAN: Miller says he'll abide by the rule, of course. But he sees a gaping loophole. Treating a lawmaker to a meal is fine if it involves delivery of a campaign check at the same time.

Mr. MILLER: As long as we call it a fundraiser, we can take the member out.

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Founder, Democracy 21): I think that's just a phony argument.

BERGMAN: Congressional watchdog Fred Wertheimer.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: The lobbyists don't like this so they come up with these law school hypothetical that say well, look, doesn't that mean nothing will work? That's simply not true here.

BERGMAN: Wertheimer doesn't think the new rules are perfect. A lot depends on how well they're enforced. But they're definitely a step in the right direction and they're badly needed. He admits Jack Abramoff was an extreme caseā€¦

Mr. WERTHEIMER: But the techniques he used - meals, sporting tickets, vacation trips - are the tools of the trade of the lobbying community in Washington.

BERGMAN: Paul Miller says there's nothing wrong with those tools. They're just effective ways of conveying information in a more friendly setting.

Mr. MILLER: Typically, we're taking staffers out to lunch to talk about the issues, to get them out of a very crowded, cramped office space. I don't know if anybody's ever gone to a House building and visited one of the member's offices. You know, you've got phones ringing, the TV is on, your cubicle might be next to the copy machine.

BERGMAN: But for Wertheimer, the issue is simple: If other citizens don't enjoy that kind of cozy access to Congress, why should lobbyists?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: That meal makes that member of Congress your captive audience. Lobbyists ought to present their case on the strength of their ideas, not on the special access that they get from buying their way in.

BERGMAN: Wertheimer points out lawmakers will still be able to enjoy a good meal at Charlie Palmer or any restaurant they want. They'll just have to pay for it like their constituents.

Ben Bergman, NPR News, Washington.

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