It’s not hard to see why promoting the $29 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund has been a bipartisan exercise among members of Congress. Created to help hard-hit restaurants, it’s a clear example of Capitol Hill providing a lifeline to a COVID-stricken country.
But there’s a minor problem for some of those lawmakers touting the program: they voted against the bill that created it.
The idea of setting up a program to benefit restaurants struggling during the pandemic has been popular among Republicans and Democrats. But it was a key plank of the so-called American Rescue Plan, Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID response package, and not a single GOP lawmaker in the House or Senate voted in favor of that bill back in March on the grounds that it was too expensive and misguided.
In the last week, however, at least six of those “no” votes have encouraged their constituents to apply for restaurant relief funds, including Reps. Greg Pence (R-IN), Beth Van Duyne (R-TX), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), and Claudia Tenney (R-NY).
Some of these members joined most Republicans in backing funds for restaurant relief. But all of them slammed the final COVID bill when it came up for a vote. Pence, for example, was far from enthusiastic about the package, calling it “hyper-partisan.” But the Indiana Republican declared in a Wednesday tweet—complete with siren emojis—that “help is on the way for those in the food and restaurant industry.”
This is the exact opposite of what the House GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), said about the legislation during floor debate in March. “Help is not on the way,” he said. “Help is not on the way.”
Asked how Pence reconciled his tweet with his opposition to the bill—and if he could be perceived as taking credit for it—spokesperson Hannah Osantowske told The Daily Beast that Pence “is always looking for a silver lining hiding in a big lump of shit if it helps out his constituents.”
It’s not unheard of for politicians to embrace aspects of a larger bill they did not support. But these Republicans’ dance on the COVID bill showcases the party’s larger political bind when it comes to Democrats’ top achievement so far this year. The GOP may have uniformly rejected the relief package and criticized it in the harshest terms, but it became law—and became broadly popular with the public. Now, constituents want a piece of the pie, and their representatives want to be seen as helping to dish those slices out.
“Doesn’t bother me a bit,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) on his GOP colleagues promoting the restaurant fund. “Touting a program against which one voted simply affirms it was good policy and celebrates those who had the courage to do what’s right—rather than what’s politically expedient.”
Generally, members of Congress view it as an obligation to share information about government programs, and much of their work back home is focused on helping them navigate them. That fact forms the basis for much of the GOP lawmakers’ explanations for their promotion of the restaurant funds.
“The Congresswoman is using her platform to inform her constituents of federal funds and resources available to them,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for Stefanik, who encouraged constituents to apply for the funds in a Thursday tweet. “She did not claim to support the bill in the tweet, and her constituents deserve to know about federal programs they can apply for regardless of how she votes.”
But the GOP’s criticism of the legislation that created the restaurant fund makes their mundane promotion of the program back home more jarring. McCarthy and other Republicans said the legislation was essentially a “Trojan horse” for socialism; the GOP leader challenged Democrats to look their constituents in the eye and explain why the spending was necessary.
They argued that only 9 percent of it went toward real pandemic relief. Their basis for that figure is the plan’s $160 billion allotment for testing, tracing and vaccine distribution—a sum that does not include the billions in restaurant relief they say they wanted to support.
Some Republicans, like Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), predicted in March that the public would be “outraged” when the public found out more about the legislation after its swift passage. That outrage has not materialized, and even GOP insiders have admitted they struggled to land a punch on the COVID bill. Republicans have seemed more eager to move on to topics like immigration, and Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan, as they quietly facilitate the continued roll-out of the COVID bill back home.
At least one GOP senator, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, was quick to praise the restaurant funds after the COVID bill passed. “Independent restaurant operators have won $28.6 billion worth of targeted relief,” he tweeted. After facing scrutiny, Wicker told CNN that “one good provision in a $1.9 trillion bill doesn't mean I have to vote for the whole thing.”
The Democratic backers of the COVID package couldn’t be more amused at the development, and they’ve accused these Republicans of trying to have it both ways. Democratic lawmakers have piled on the tweets from Republicans promoting the restaurant relief program, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has highlighted them in her own press releases.
“Every single House Republican voted to block the relief that’s helping neighborhood restaurants stay afloat and survive this pandemic,” said Robyn Patterson, a spokesperson for Pelosi. “When their communities needed them most, House Republicans put politics over helping small businesses keep their doors open. They should tweet out apologies, not victory laps.”
Republicans respond that they’d be derelict in their duty to not inform constituents about the program—even if they didn’t vote for it.
Craig Wheeler, a spokesperson for Herrera Beutler, called the Democrats’ attacks “stupid, cynical, and hypocritical.” He explained the Washington state Republican amplified information about the program “because it is now law and the Southwest Washington taxpayers she represents deserve to know about the program they are paying for.”