Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), a leading advocate of shrinking entitlement spending and the architect of the plan to privatize Medicare, spent Wednesday evening sipping $350 wine with two like-minded conservative economists at the swanky Capitol Hill eatery Bistro Bis.
It was the same night reports started trickling out about President Obama pressing Congressional leaders to consider changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for GOP support for targeted tax increases.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the waiter's presentation, uncorking and decanting of the pricey Pinot Noir caught the attention of another diner who had already recognized Ryan sitting with two other men nearby.
Susan Feinberg, an associate business professor at Rutgers, was at Bistro Bis celebrating her birthday with her husband that night. When she saw the label on the bottle of Jayer-Gilles 2004 Echezeaux Grand Cru Ryan's table had ordered, she quickly looked it up on the wine list and saw that it sold for an eye-popping $350, the most expensive wine in the house along with one other with the same pricetag.
Feinberg, an economist by training, was even more appalled when the table ordered a second bottle. She quickly did the math and figured out that the $700 in wine the trio consumed over the course of 90 minutes amounted to more than the entire weekly income of a couple making minimum wage.
"We were just stunned," said Feinberg, who e-mailed TPM about her encounter later the same evening. "I was an economist so I started doing the envelope calculations and quickly figured out that those two bottles of wine was more than two-income working family making minimum wage earned in a week."
She was outraged that Ryan was consuming hundreds of dollars in wine while Congress was in the midst of intense debates over whether to cut seniors' safety net, and she didn't know whether Ryan or his companions was going to pay for the wine and whether the two men were lobbyists. She snapped a few shots with her cell phone to record the wine purchase.
Feinberg knew if the men were lobbyists, or worked for a firm or company that employs lobbyists, then paying for such expensive wine would be a violation of Congressional ethics rules barring members from accepting anything of value from lobbyists.
Members can also run into trouble if they accept more than $100 per year from anyone - even a friend.
"Basically, you have a situation in which the person who bought the meal says I bought it on the basis of a personal friendship and if it's under $100, you have to show the history of the relationship and some degree of reciprocity," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.
If the gift is more than $100, House rules require members to obtain written determination from the Ethics Committee on whether they can accept it or not.
After ending their meal and paying the check, Feinberg decided to give Ryan a piece of her mind. She approached the table and asked Ryan "how he could live with himself" sipping expensive wine while advocating for cuts to programs for seniors and the poor. Some verbal jousting between Feinberg and the other two men ensued. One of the two men said he had ordered the wine, was drinking it and paying for it. In hearing how much the wine cost, Ryan said only: "Is that how much it was?"
The clash became especially heated when Feinberg asked the men if they were lobbyists.
"F—— her," one of them replied and stood up in a menacing way, according to Feinberg's account. Feinberg said her husband then "puffed out his chest" in response before the manager and a waiter came over and Feinberg decided she had said her piece and it was time to leave.
Ryan does not dispute most of the details of Feinberg's account, although he told TPM the two men are economists, not lobbyists, and characterized Feinberg as "crazy" and possibly drunk. For her part, Feinberg said she believes the economist at the table who got out his seat to challenge her was the one intoxicated.
"It was my birthday, and I'd had half a bottle of great wine with dinner," she wrote in an e-mail to TPM. "I wasn't drunk, but I was certainly emboldened to speak my mind."
The one major aspect of the story in dispute was the topic of conversation at Ryan's dinner table.
Feinberg said all three men were "droning on loudly during the evening that liberals think that if you're a millionaire, you have done something wrong."
Ryan said the discussion focused on monetary policy and QE2, the Federal Reserve's second round of quantitative easing, i.e. efforts to bolster the economy through the purchase of $600 billion in long-term U.S. Treasury bonds.
TPM caught up with Ryan after a vote outside of the Speaker's lobby. In further explaining his side of the story, Ryan said he only had one glass of wine out of the two bottles but decided when it came time to pay the bill that he should pay for one of the bottles of wine out of an abundance of caution. He even produced the receipt for the meal, which you can view here. The receipt shows a charge to Ryan's credit card for $472 — $392 for his meal and the bottle of wine and a generous $80 tip.
"I didn't order - they ordered," Ryan told TPM. "I had one glass, uh, with my water, and when [Feinberg] was talking about how expensive it was, I didn't even know [the price]."
Ryan said his two "friends" are economists, not lobbyists, but would not give their names to TPM. He said one of the men is an economist "he reads a lot" and the two have conversed before so he invited him to Washington so they could meet.
"I read a lot about this economist. I've enjoyed what he's written. I wanted to pick his
brain ... so that's what we did," Ryan explained.
When asked more directly whether he thought it was appropriate to be ordering $350 wine while pushing for cuts to benefits for seniors and the poor, Ryan conceded that it's "stupid" to pay that much for a bottle of wine and said he wouldn't do so again.
Here's a partial transcript of the interview.
TPM: ...she was saying, is it appropriate for you guys to be ordering that kind of wine $350 dollars-a-bottle?
Ryan: "A.) I didn't order it. B.) I had no idea what it would cost, and C.) ...I bought one of these bottles even though I drank a glass, and I always pull my own weight for my meals."
TPM: That was very smart. ... But do you think it's appropriate now that you know how much the wine cost to be drinking [such expensive wine] when you're advocating cuts for seniors?
Ryan: "I think it's stupid to pick up that much for a bottle of wine under any circumstance."
TPM: But you had to pay for it...
Ryan: "Yeah, I was like this is ridiculous. Who buys wine that expensive? It surprised me, and I think it's stupid under any circumstance to pay anything close to 100 dollars for a bottle of wine.
TPM: So you wouldn't do it again?
Ryan: "Well, of course not, because I think it's too much money to pay for wine. Yeah, I don't really know what exactly it cost. It was expensive. But um, 250 maybe it was 250, I don't really remember."