NatGeo

Are Restaurants Big Food or Small Business?

“The Plate,” National Geographic • April 19, 2016

Oil, banks, and big box stores are some of the industries that probably come to mind when you hear the term “powerful lobbyists.” Now, a new report aims to add one more to the list: restaurants.

Critics say the National Restaurant Association (NRA) trade group has a far wider influence in Washington than most American’s realize, shaping policy on a range of issues—particularly those related to food, says Sriram Madhusoodanan, a campaign director for Corporate Accountability International, which authored the report. From 2013 to 2014, the NRA spent nearly $5 million on lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Less surprisingly, legislators who have received a share of the NRA’s political contributions, which totaled $1.3 million in 2014, tend to support the group’s preferred policies—including twenty senators and seven representatives identified by the report.

“The primary surprises…[were] the swath of issues on which the NRA was active in opposing,” Madhusoodanan says.

Several of the NRA’s legislative priorities reflect the fact that the group represents an industry that employs 10 percent of the American workforce. The group is a steady opponent of increases to the tipped and hourly minimum wages, for example.

That’s because profits in the industry are slim, and higher wages would mean higher prices—and a likely loss of business, writes Christin Fernandez, a spokesperson for the NRA, in an email.

Researchers identified NRA-backed legislation primarily by assessing the group’s public lobbying reports and its annual advocacy priorities, Madhusoodanan says. Campaign contribution data was accessed through OpenSecrets.og.

Most surprisingly, though, the NRA has also pushed for policy changes that at first blush seem irrelevant to its members. It’s worked to restrict eligibility for the Affordable Care Act, for example, which requires businesses with 50 or more employees to offer coverage, which Fernandez says applies to just 10 percent of restaurants. The group has also opposed labeling laws for genetically modified ingredients and supported the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Those odd pairings, suggested researchers, can be explained by the NRA’s biggest members: corporate restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Darden, which owns the Olive Garden and others. The scale of operations at these companies mean that any increase to the cost of doing business—through wages, health-care obligations, or fuel prices, for example—can multiply into massive sums.

“The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill,” Madhusoodanan says. “The NRA is out really lobbying in the interest of the big guys.”

But NRA’s Fernandez downplayed the idea that corporate interests influenced the group’s lobbying priorities. “As for the fact that we only represent corporate interests, that’s laughable,” she says. “We represent over 500,000 restaurant businesses of all different sizes.”

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