Lobbyists find inside dealing cut them out

October 02, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Cup your ear toward Capitol Hill. Listen closely and you will hear a scuffling stampede of a thousand expensive shoes, a plaintive whine from hundreds of overheated fax machines and a scratchy scribbling of signatures on new checks for campaign contributions.

These are the sounds of lobbyists going to war, as they inevitably do each time a new tax increase comes down the line.

But despite the din rising to meet the latest proposal to raise taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, alcohol, fancy cars, big boats, pricey jewelry and the elderly, some lobbyists feel that this time their noise may be in vain.

For once, the lobbying community may have been outflanked by closed-door deals and a shortage of time.

"While they feel like they've got to go through the motions, they feel like they're on the outside this time," said David Koshgarian, aide to Maryland Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. "They feel like this has all been worked out in advance."

And it has been, as least as far as the congressional leadership is concerned. The tax proposal resulted from a lengthy series of closed "budget summit" meetings that have left lawmakers feeling shut out as well.

Add to that a sense of urgency -- lawmakers hope to act on the package by Oct. 19, and a defeat could force devastating budget cuts.

"Unless you create a home-district political problem for a member [of Congress], the inside-the-Beltway trading probably isn't going to work this time," said Jack Bonner, president of Bonner and Associates, a firm that specializes in creating just that sort of problem. He concedes

that at this late date creating any kind of problem would be difficult, "though not impossible -- and it would be expensive."

That predicament has left the boat owners' lobby furious and feeling helpless to stop a proposed $25-a-year Coast Guard fee that is part of the package. Michael Sciulla, vice president of BOAT/U.S., which lobbies on behalf of 370,000 recreational boat owners, said his group had been winning the fight against the same proposal for 10 years.

"The intent to circumvent the normal legislative procedures is the only way they could get these so-called user fees passed," he said. "If they had gone the normal route, we could have defeated it again."

Even the normally powerful tobacco lobby seems resigned to a proposed 8-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase by 1993.

"We won't be silent," said Tom Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying and public relations arm. "And we're very disappointed Congress would consider any cigarette excise tax in light of doubling us in '83. But I think our lobbying effort will remain kind-of subdued. In a sense, a kind of increase just may be in the cards."

Mr. Lauria said the industry at least staved off 16-cent and 25-cent increases that had been discussed earlier, and he credits that to pre-emptive strikes of lobbying during the summer. Still, 8 cents would be a 50 percent increase from the current 16 cents a pack.

The beer industry launched a pre-emptive strike, through a joint "can the beer tax" campaign in television and newspaper advertising by the Beer Institute and mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch Inc. The effort's multimillion-dollar radio, television and newspaper advertising campaign helped drum up 2.2 million petition signatures and 1.5 million messages to Congress via a toll-free

phone number (800) 33-TAXES.

But one of the campaign's major themes -- criticizing the lack of excise taxes on luxury items as opposed to the taxes on beer -- may have backfired. Rather than convince budget negotiators to hold the line on beer taxes, (the agreement includes a 16-cents-per-six-pack increase), the campaign may have instead prompted negotiators to impose a 10 percent tax on luxury cars, jewelry, furs and boats.

By taxing so many different non-necessary items, Congress may have outflanked the lobbyists.

"Those guys [in Congress] can come back and say everybody's taking a hit," moaned one lobbyist,"whether it's the wine-and-cheese group or the beer-and -pretzel group."

"If we had been singled out,"said Mr.Lauria,of the Tobacco Institute,"you'd have a very vocal industry reaction.But so many other voices are going to be clamoring about this now."

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