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The secret sauce behind leading opponents of a minimum wage increase

4/8/2014, 2:14 p.m.
There’s a heated debate going on in Congress and many state capitols this spring over raising the minimum wage. One ...

By LeeAnn Hall and Saru Jayaraman

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 the Restaurant Association holds its annual lobby day in Washington, D.C. in late April, topping its agenda will be 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 does 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 Restaurant Association 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 optics to say you’re speaking for the corner bakery than corporate chains like Taco Bell and Olive Garden.

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

The Restaurant Association’s roster of registered lobbyists has grown substantially, even as more lobbying moves underground in Washington. From 2008 to 2013, the NRA more than doubled its count of 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, netting four mentions on The Hill’s Top Lobbyists list for 2013. Or, you might say, the best-connected ingredients. 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 – it’s like Washington’s version of insider trading. Despite reforms passed in 2007, the revolving door spins faster than ever: according to the Sunlight Foundation, the share of active contract lobbyists who are revolvers increased from 18 percent in 1998 to 44 percent in 2012.

And, when it comes to using the revolving door to cook up insider influence, nobody does it like the National Restaurant Association.

Indeed, when the NRA doubled its lobbyist count, it didn’t just pluck any old suits off the DC streets. It made a concerted investment: all the growth came from a four-fold increase in “insider trading” (ie, revolving door) lobbyists, from 6 in 2008 to 27 in 2013.

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.