Politics

Charlie Palmer Steak, Men’s Wearhouse – When PACs Pick Up Lawmaker Tabs

Report: Congress members and Candidates spend megabucks in predictable places

Charlie Palmer’s, a white-tablecloth steakhouse steps from the Senate office building, was the favorite D.C. dining destination for politicians using money from leadership PACs, according to a watchdog report. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Want to know how to live like a Washington insider? You could do worse than peruse the latest report on improper spending in Congress. 

One takeaway: From dining to hotels to shopping, D.C. politicians do not opt for adventure, at least when someone else is paying the tab. 

That’s according to a report released Thursday by the watchdog groups Issue One and The Campaign Legal Center. The report analyzed more than 200,000 Federal Election Commission records to determine how Congress Members and candidates use money raised through leadership political action committees.

The little-known campaign funds are meant to help members raise money for their colleagues, an activity that can help them climb the party ranks.  Because those accounts aren’t subject to the same spending restrictions as the ones candidates use for their own campaigns, they have become a notorious source for improper spending.

The report found lawmakers from both parties had spent millions of dollars since 2013 from leadership PACs that may have been unlawful if it came from their own campaign accounts. Only 45 percent of the money collected went to candidates or political committees, it found. It also revealed another thing that many Congress watchers have known on a visceral level for a long time: Not only is Congress overwhelmingly old, white and male. It also skews kind of boring. 

Among the report’s conclusions: officeholders spent hundreds of thousands in donated cash on high-class meals at some of the district’s more predictable — if well-regarded — dining establishments.

With their leadership PACs picking up the tab, Congress members and candidates overwhelmingly chose white tablecloth steak and seafood restaurants over the type of hot, new destinations famously frequented by those other D.C. trendsetters, the Obamas. 

Topping the list of D.C. restaurants was the Charlie Palmer Steak, a perennial favorite for fundraising events, both for its $54 ribeye and proximity to the Senate office buildings. Politicians have spent $252,000 of leadership PAC money at the establishment in the past five years, according to the report. 

Following close behind, with a collective tab of $192,000, was Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab, a pricey palette pleaser with locations in Las Vegas, Chicago, and D.C. In third: $154,000 at Bistro Bis, a Capitol Hill French joint the Zagat guide distinguished with three dollar signs and the accolade “‘expense account’ bistro.”

When they ventured farther afield, pols spent their leisure time at brand-name luxury resorts and golf clubs, including St. Regis, Ritz-Carltons and Four Seasons. They spent $765,000 at the West Virginia Greenbrier Sporting Club, an exclusive spot four hours from Washington with a bunker in the basement big enough for every member of Congress.

Other prime destinations included — you guessed it — Las Vegas restaurants and hotels ($98,000 at the Venetian/Palazzo; $76,000 at the Wynn, $36,000 at the Aria Resort). And, of course, they went to Disney —$469,000 went to themed restaurants, resorts and hotels. 

The slow-and-mild choices didn’t stop with dining and travel: When Sen. Rand Paul R-Ky. went clothes shopping on his leadership PACs dime, the report said, he spent $337 at a Men’s Wearhouse in Omaha, Nebraska and $438 at Allen Edmonds, a company that has made expensive and stylishly safe men’s footwear in the USA for 100 years. Officeholders are prohibited from using campaign funds on clothing and apparel. A representative from Paul’s PAC, Reinventing a New Direction Political Action Committee, did not return a request for comment.

Lawmakers and congressional campaign aides defended their choices to the Washington Post and McClatchy news, saying such spending is expected and necessary in the cutthroat world of Washington politics. 

“You want to make it so that donors feel comfortable, feel welcome and have fun. That’s Fundraising 101,” one GOP campaign aide anonymously told the Post.

The report calls for reforms from the Federal Election Commission and legislation from Congress to prevent future abuses. Now that would be surprising.

The Men Behind the Names of the 3 Senate Office Buildings

Correction 8:25 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misspelled Men’s Wearhouse. 

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