Be careful! That could be a $5 bribe

Following the Democrats’ triumphant return to Washington in early January, Eli Hengst, the owner of Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, offered a round of drinks to a few longtime customers who happened to be Democratic lawmakers.

They paused uncomfortably, uncertain whether they could accept a $5 beer or $6 glass of wine, according to Hengst, who considers them friends. They broke out laughing and accepted Hengst’s offer.

While the new gift ban, which prohibits lawmakers and staffers from accepting lunches, dinners or drinks from lobbyists, has not dented the profits of Capitol Hill restaurants, it has made everyone more cautious.

“People are asking more questions than they used to,” Hengst said, adding that his business has not been affected by the rules change. “There is [more] sensitivity.”

Stratton Liapis, owner of Bullfeathers, said, “Lunches are not as busy as they used to be … They’re all so afraid; it will definitely affect us unless they find a way around it.”

La Lomita Dos, a small, moderately priced Mexican restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue filled with patrons flashing Congressional ID badges, has noted differences as well.

“We have a very regular clientele,” but some of them “don’t come as often” since the gift ban passed, manager Erick Amaya said. “It’s been a little slower, but not that bad, [and] campaigns are picking up the tab more.”

The new rule does not prohibit lobbyists from hosting fundraisers with finger-food and drinks, and some restaurants have experienced a spike in receptions.

The gift ban has not had a big impact on Tortilla Coast’s bottom line, Catering Manager Becky Marrs said. But the Tex-Mex restaurant has had “more daytime business than evening receptions, which are pricier.” 

“Campaigns are paying for more things directly,” she added.

But even in the planning of events, especially for those inexperienced in the ways of Washington, people are asking more questions about what they can or cannot do, Hengst said.

Some restaurant managers and owners said business is booming despite the ban.

“We’ve actually had more members come over more recently, including a group of 15, 16 senators dining together the other night in here on their own check,” the owner of the Monocle Restaurant, John Valanos, said.

More lawmakers have been dining at night and picking up their tabs, he said, adding that he expects the gift ban to adversely affect pricier restaurants. Some of those more upscale restaurants, which make it their business to be discreet, either haven’t noted a difference or refuse to discuss it. 

The staff at America, which serves entrees priced from $12 to $20 in a sweeping room in Union Station, was uncomfortable discussing the gift ban’s effect on their business.

“My manager will not like me speaking to the press,” the duty manager, who refused to give his full name, said.

America’s Union Station neighbor, B.Smith’s, has not seen a difference, according to manager Mike Wyche, who said, “We still get all the people coming in, and who’s paying doesn’t appear to be an issue.”

At Bistro Bis, a restaurant offering $15–$24 French entrees in the Hotel George, a table of four men wearing suits and striped red, white and blue ties enjoyed an afternoon cocktail while the staff observed from a respectful distance. 

“We really don’t ask anybody who’s paying,” owner Jeffrey Buben said, adding, “Knock on wood, business is robust.”

The new House rule and yet-to-be-enacted Senate law simply offends some owners, who find it ludicrous that lawmakers and staffers would trade legislative favors for a $20 entree or a few drinks.  

“To think that corruption is taking place in a restaurant is stupid. Corruption is corruption, and we shouldn’t be penalized for it,” Buben said. “We don’t have a fashion industry, or publishing, like New York; our business is the government. Everyone here wants a part of the government.”

Sonoma’s Hengst said, “We’re not a steakhouse. If you’re going to bribe someone here I feel sorry for you.”

Still, a cadre of staffers and at least one ex-lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), have been convicted of crimes for their willingness to trade legislative action for free meals, trips and tickets to sporting events.

Whether the gift ban will turn bad actors into law-abiding ones is unclear.

“We really haven’t noticed a difference in people being more cautious because I think there are people doing it anyway,” Wyche of B. Smith’s said, laughing. “Yeah, they’re doing it anyway.”