April 16, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 16

Community & Editorial

National Restaurant Association lobbyists aim to freeze calls to increase federal minimum wage

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There’s a heated debate going on in Congress and many state capitols this spring over raising the minimum wage. One of the key players, and a vocal opponent of wage increases, is the restaurant lobby, led by the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

So when NRA holds its annual lobby day in Washington, D.C. in late April, one idea will top the agenda: to stick a fork in the proposed federal minimum wage increase.

The NRA has an impressive track record on this score. Congress hasn’t voted to increase the minimum wage since 2007, and the tipped minimum that applies to many restaurant workers remains frozen at $2.13 an hour, where it’s been stuck since 1991.

Whose interests do the NRA represent? Its membership includes a kitchen sink list of corporate chains, including Darden Restaurants (parent company of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille), YUM! Brands (parent of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut), Walt Disney, McDonald’s, Marriott, Sodexo, Aramark, Starbucks and Coca-Cola — all members of the Fortune 500 or Global 500.

But on its lobby day, the NRA will likely showcase “mom and pop” restaurants instead of corporate chains. If you’re going to lobby against a publicly popular issue like a minimum wage increase, it’s better to say you’re speaking for the corner bakery rather than corporate chains like Taco Bell and Olive Garden.

So on its D.C. lobby day, the NRA will cultivate a Main Street image. But the other 364 days of the year NRA features a different main ingredient: Washington insider influence peddling that stacks the deck against low-wage workers.

NRA’s roster of registered lobbyists has grown substantially, even as more lobbying moves underground. From 2008 to 2013, the NRA more than doubled its registered lobbyists from 15 to 37, according to OpenSecrets.org. The member companies listed above added another 127 registered lobbyists last year.

The NRA’s choice of lobbyists reflects a commitment to using the best ingredients, with four of them netting mentions on the list of 2013 top lobbyists collated by The Hill, a D.C. newspaper written for and about Congress. The “secret sauce” behind the NRA’s lobbying success? A heaping helping of revolving-door influence.

Nothing symbolizes influence peddling in Washington like the revolving door between Congress and K Street, the preferred address for D.C. lobbyists. Despite reforms passed in 2007, the revolving door spins faster than ever: According to the Sunlight Foundation, the number of active revolving contract lobbyists increased from 18 percent in 1998 to 44 percent in 2012.

The NRA’s 2013 insiders included nine “rapid revolvers” (who jumped from government jobs to lobbying jobs the same or the following year), six former congressional chiefs of staff, six former legislative directors and various senior advisors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For perspective, compare the NRA’s profile to that of the other NRA powerhouse, the National Rifle Association. While the two had virtually identical lobbyist counts last year (37 for restaurants, 33 for firearms) the restaurant association had nearly twice as many revolving lobbyists as the gun lobby (27 to 15).

The Restaurant Association’s members have invested heavily in insiders, too. The companies listed above tripled their combined count of revolving lobbyists from 28 to 91 from 1998 to 2013. Talk about super-sizing your insider influence. 

So the NRA and its biggest members together have more than a hundred “insider trading” lobbyists pushing their agenda in Congress. How many do minimum wage workers have, again?

If it seems surprisingly hard to raise the minimum wage, despite overwhelming public support, we’ll know why. The restaurant industry’s legions of revolving door lobbyists are using their insider influence to keep a wage increase right where the NRA wants it: in the deep freezer.

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