At least one prominent Hill establishment — Le Mistral on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast — was forced to shutter its doors in the late 1990s.
“It’s going to have an initial impact. Maybe some people don’t want to be out and seen with lobbyists,” said Zucconi, adding that in the long run he didn’t expect any rule change to dramatically affect business. “They still have to eat,” he said of his lobbyist-heavy clientele.
Rather than further restrict the dollar amount of the gifts Members or staff could accept, Zucconi said a more sensible approach would be to enforce the rules already on the books.
That’s a sentiment shared by the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s lobbying group, which is adamantly opposed to overhauling current gift rules.
National Restaurant Association chief lobbyist John Gay said his group was “making our views known on the Hill” that the “focus should be on enforcing the rules and looking at disclosure regulations, not on throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
“I think it could have a very serious impact on those whose clientele is a high percentage of lobbyists with these sorts of meals,” Gay added.
Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, a state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association, said her group was already in “preliminary discussions with the [D.C.] mayor’s office to see if “the mayor could make a statement” that would in turn pressure Congress to consider the impact of gift rule changes on the restaurant industry.
All told, Breaux said that “Congressionally related” dining accounted for roughly 30 percent of the D.C. restaurant patronage.
At McCormick and Schmick’s, McVeigh said that stricter gift rules could have a significant repercussions for the restaurant, where the average lunch bill per head checks in around $26. These could include lower turnover and longer waits, due to the increased time required to run separate credit cards and the potential implementation of cheaper, “dummied down” menu items like grilled cheese and french fries.
Even some more casual hangouts — such as Bullfeathers, located just blocks from the House office buildings — could take a hit.
“Yeah, they are going to hurt us,” said Bullfeathers owner Stratton Liapis, estimating that 80 percent to 90 percent of his clientele visited his restaurant on “Hill-related” business. “But it will hurt Morton’s a lot more.”
When asked about the impact of any potential reforms, Liapis, like other Hill restaurateurs, launched into a defense of the lobbying profession.
“They taught us in civics class that it’s important to have lobbyists because that’s how Congress gets a lot of their information. I still think that’s the case. I think that 98 percent of lobbyists are honorable, hardworking people that do a good job for the country,” he said.
“Why shouldn’t [lobbyists] pick up lunch for a staffer or Members?” Liapis added. “You mean people are selling their souls for $25 or $50? It’s so silly. It’s the big things they need to be concerned about.”
Not everybody is worried about the potential changes. Some D.C. restaurateurs pooh-poohed the idea that business could be affected in a major way.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.