A Day in the Life: Restaurateurs Hit the Hill

Posted September 26, 2007 at 6:37pm

Like hundreds of Washington, D.C., trade associations that shuttle their members to town every year for a bit of precious face time with lawmakers and staff, the National Restaurant Association has its once-a-year shot at putting a live face on its most pressing concerns.

On Wednesday, the NRA was ready. Its 700 delegates, who had spent the day before at the Grand Hyatt prepping their talking points, fanned out over the Capitol for 332 meetings, including some 284 lawmakers.

That may seem like an extraordinary show of force. But restaurant owners, like real estate agents and bankers and even florists, all share something in common: a powerful membership presence in every Congressional district.

Still, the results of the day, like many constituent experiences, were decidedly mixed, as the restaurateurs touched on some of Congress’ most sensitive subjects: comprehensive immigration reform, food safety and lowering the number of years it takes to depreciate their buildings.

Members arrived by state associations and tended to concentrate on their state delegations.

For the Pennsylvania group, 8 a.m. Wednesday was go time. With 20 restaurateurs swarming the Capitol, they were meeting once again with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whom they see as an ally on immigration reform, and freshman Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a first for many of them. That’s in addition to 14 of the 19 Members of the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation.

Arming themselves with the facts that restaurants are the second-largest private-sector employer, the 2,100-member association wanted answers, mainly about immigration and what Congress is going to do.

As the lobbyists mingled outside Casey’s office, for many it was a time to reacquaint themselves with old friends and competitors. Most were loose; they weren’t novices on Capitol Hill. They’ve been here before and were ready to get right to the point.

Led by state President James Flanigan, an intense, impeccably dressed man who has spent his entire career in the food service industry, the group was realistic about their role in national politics.

“The NRA is like the NFL. [The state restaurant associations] are all the backups of the NFL,” said Joseph DiSalvo, owner of DiSalvo’s Station Restaurant and incoming president of the state association, as they waited in the hallway to meet with Casey.

But while lobbying here is important, the Pennsylvania association, which is headquartered in in the state capital, Harrisburg, sees its role as more intimately involved in state-level politicking than federal.

“Our mission is Harrisburg,” said Flanigan. “They can do a lot more damage to us.”

Currently, for example, the city of Philadelphia is deciding whether to require trans-fat labeling on menus, which Flanigan describes as “feel-good legislation” that doesn’t really work, and Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, which is considering a 10 percent drink tax.

“More and more issues are driven down from the federal to the state and now the local level” Patrick Conway, the state association’s top staffer, said.

The group also is dealing with a proposed statewide smoking ban, which it favors. But, the restaurant industry hit a roadblock earlier this year after the tavern association and casinos lobbied heavily for exemptions.

“My own opinion is I hate the government telling me what to do,” said Flanigan, of the smoking ban. “But exemptions put us at a competitive disadvantage. It’s the old story of leveling the playing field.”

After filing into the office adjacent to Casey’s main entrance in the Russell building, the group settled in around a long boardroom table, with others perched around the walls.

But there’s no Casey. Instead, the lobbyists had to make due with a staffer who works on many of the issues, including immigration reform.

The group has been prepped by lobbyists from the D.C. office of the National Restaurant Association to stay on their talking points: immigration reform, food safety and the restaurant depreciation tax.

“For immigration the primary goal is to express our frustration with the inability of Congress to tackle this obviously significant issue,” said Brendan Flanagan, the NRA’s vice president of federal relations, in an interview.

Bill Baker, an NRA board member and Pennsylvania restaurateur, led off the discussion, pointing to how comprehensive immigration reform is important not only to their bottom line, but also in making sure employers are on the right side of the law.

He followed up with horror stories of under-staffed restaurants that can only seat half the restaurant because there aren’t enough workers.

Baker’s frustration is echoed by fellow association members, including Michael Passalacqua, former state association president and owner of Angelo’s Italian restaurant in Washington, Pa.

“We are not document experts,” Passalacqua said. “The only way the restaurant industry is going to be staffed is a matter of stealing each other’s employees.”

With just minutes left before the staffer had to exit for another meeting, the delegates had little time to address food safety and depreciation.

As the lobbyists left Casey’s office, many are frustrated about not getting more specific answers about when immigration reform is going to happen. But, they held out hope for Specter, whom they see as a real advocate on immigration reform.

After trucking to the Hart Senate Office Building, the delegation was led into Specter’s office for the much-anticipated meeting. For many of the delegates who have been attending the national conference for many years, it wasn’t the first time they’ve met with the Senator.

Less than 10 minutes after Specter joined them, they exited the meeting and frustration from some of the members mounted.

Even Conway, the state association chief executive who so far has kept a stiff upper lip all morning helping coordinate the delegates and keep everyone on message, diplomatically explained that Specter “didn’t have much time.”

But with the meeting so short, and no one from the delegation given the opportunity to ask a single question, others are slightly more frazzled.

“The time frame was just so small, we couldn’t get any information. I’m disappointed because I had a lot questions. There’s no time with only 10 minutes,” Passalacqua said.