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Lawmakers Rack Up Hefty Bills Wining and Dining Donors

From established Capitol Hill haunts such as Charlie Palmer Steak, Johnny’s Half Shell and Bistro Bis to newer locales including Chinatown’s Hill Country Barbecue and Cava Mezze at Barracks Row, House Members are injecting hefty sums into Washington, D.C.’s restaurant industry as they wine and dine donors.

A Roll Call review of campaign disbursements filed with the Federal Election Commission shows that Johnny’s Half Shell is lawmakers’ venue of choice, pocketing $323,811 in Member campaign funds since the beginning of last year. Charlie Palmer’s is a distant second, raking in $296,912, and Bobby Van’s comes in third with $258,766.

Feeding donors in low-lit, wood-paneled settings is nothing new for Washington’s power set. It’s a necessary evil in an era in which a steady flow of campaign cash is essential to defend a seat against potential primary challenges and opponents from the other party.
It’s also perfectly legal to use campaign cash to court donors over an upscale lunch, or to treat campaign staff to a nice meal to discuss strategy, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

Ethically, however, Wilcox said the devil is in the details.

“Is this a dinner with key constituents from your district … or is this you’re hanging out with some lobbyists and talking over campaign strategy over a really expensive meal?” Wilcox said. “The ethics of it is about morality.”

That tension has become intense in a climate in which it has become fashionable for even incumbents to rail against the Washington establishment and career politicians. The FEC filings show that some Members appear to have embraced some of the trappings they derided on the stump.

Freshman Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), who earned his seat by declaring he was “fed up” with Washington and its career politicos, spent more than $6,500 on a handful of fundraisers at venues such as Charlie Palmer Steak and Hill Country Barbecue.

Fellow freshman Republican Rep. Dan Benishek (Mich.) – who said he was tired of the wasteful spending of Washington and went as far as hanging a banner over his Capitol Hill office’s door reading, “If you are here to ask for more money, you’re in the wrong office!” – has spent $7,943 at BLT Steak and Charlie Palmer Steak for campaign events during the current cycle.

Raffi Williams, communications director for Benishek’s campaign, said he couldn’t speak to the details of the events but said Benishek is a fiscal hawk who doesn’t spend taxpayers’ money lightly.

“He is not one to waste money,” Williams said. “He treasures every penny, and proper spending for him is a key concern on his campaign.”

Long’s office did not return request for comment.

Members have to spend money to bring in donations, especially when tasked with raising cash for individual campaigns and party committees.

Big fundraisers are the norm for party leaders such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Cantor’s disclosures include more than $117,000 at Bobby Van’s steakhouse, $96,000 at BLT Steak and $9,000 at Hill Country Barbecue.

Congressional veterans in safe seats, such as California Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Linda Sánchez, are also tasked with raising funds to help members of their caucuses.

Financial disclosures show Waxman, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has spent $14,353 of his campaign funds at Charlie Palmer Steak for campaign events. Sánchez, ranking member of the House Ethics Committee, spent $13,281 at Cava Mezze.

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