National Restaurant Association exec lays out group's policy priorities ahead of Chicago gathering

National Restaurant Association

Lobbyists for restaurant owners are working behind the scenes to make sure debit swipe fee limits are not swept away by the proposed gutting of a major financial reform bill.

As the National Restaurant Association prepares for a gathering in Chicago, held annually in the city in recent times and in its 98th year overall, one of its leading executives laid out the policy issues the group is working on in Washington.

And those issues include tax reform, health care and some of its requirements, and to make sure the cap on debit fees contained in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act remains in place, said Cicely Simpson, executive vice president for government affairs.

Up to 70,000 people are expected to gather at McCormick Place for four days starting May 20 for the restaurant association's annual show. They will include individuals representing all sizes of restaurant businesses, along with vendors associated with the industry.

While much of the show is about showcasing the industry, talking about best practices and displaying food and beverages, Simpson told Illinois Business Daily there will be some policy talk over the four days. 

Simpson is penciled in to host a question-and-answer session on "what is happening around Washington ... and the first 100 days of the Trump administration."

Congress is currently discussing the repeal of Dodd-Frank, which was passed following the 2008 financial crash and which targeted Wall Street and big banks with the aim of protecting consumers and small businesses. One of the provisions was a cap on the amount businesses are charged for debit card transactions.  

"We want to make sure they keep the debit card fees low," Simpson said, adding her association's fears that Congress, in moves to repeal Dodd-Frank entirely, will also scrap that provision.

"It is a bad (thing) to consider, just leave this alone," Simpson said she and others are telling members of Congress. The repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act could be considered by the House as early as next week.

Health care reform is a big issue for the association, Simpson said. It is particularly concerned over what defines an employee under the act, and therefore whether the employer is mandated to offer a plan.

The Affordable Care Act ruled that all employers with more than 50 workers must offer a health care plan, but the problem in the restaurant industry is defining full-time equivalency, Simpson said.  

"With turnover in the industry and seasonal employment, the paperwork is crushing," said Simpson, who joined the restaurant association in 2015 after working in Washington for Dunkin' Donuts since 2008, and before that for two members of Congress.

The American Health Care Act, passed by the House last week, does not specifically address these issues. But Simpson believes in assurances by House Speaker Paul Ryan that they will be addressed with further legislation at a later date.

Both the White House and the House have introduced proposals for changes to the tax code. This is an issue that is high on the restaurant association's agenda in terms of policy.

The headline figures include cuts to the corporate tax rate, with President Donald Trump stating he wants it down to 15 percent while others in Congress are talking about 20-25 percent.

"We want Congress to not just think about corporations," Simpson said. "Look at small business owners. They are very different."

The key for the restaurant association is that those tax credits available for small —including the work opportunity tax credit—remain in place. President Trump did suggest that some of the cuts would be covered by eliminating "loopholes."

The association expressed its concern with the impact of the delay in the implementation of the federal menu labeling law just days before the scheduled effective date. It was due to go into effect May 5, but has been delayed until May 2018.

"This delay upends plans that have been in motion for years throughout the food industry. We will continue to strongly advocate on behalf of what is best for small businesses and American consumers," Simpson said in a statement issued May 1. 

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