Industry may kill alcohol measure Drunken-driving bill could fall victim to furious lobbying

Congress mulls 0.08 level

March 30, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The alcohol and restaurant industries have mounted a furious lobbying assault on Congress that could kill a tough drunken driving proposal tonight -- before it ever reaches the House floor for a vote.

The showdown could be decided when a powerful House committee votes on whether to allow the drunken driving measure to be an amendment to a sweeping transportation bill that is expected to pass this week.

Arguing that the provision would save lives, safety activists have crafted a proposal to lower the level at which drivers are considered drunk, from a 0.10 blood-alcohol content to 0.08. A similar proposal was rejected weeks ago by a committee in the Maryland General Assembly.

Advocates had expected more success on the federal level. This month, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure, and with President Clinton's enthusiastic backing, supporters were delighted that momentum seemed on their side.

That has changed in recent days. The alcohol and restaurant industries have fought back with a blitzkrieg of lobbying, mobilizing an army of small-business operators who say the proposal would have no effect on drunken driving but would badly hurt their sales and penalize responsible social drinkers.

"The lobbying is unprecedented," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who sponsored the proposal.

The National Restaurant Association has flown in 150 restaurateurs from 40 states to make their case. Mom-and-pop beer, liquor and wine delivery companies are blanketing Capitol Hill with phone calls and faxes.

Some of the most powerful and well-connected lobbyists in Washington have joined in the campaign against the measure, including Ann Eppard, the former chief of staff of Rep. Bud Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and the primary force behind the transportation bill.

Money has poured into campaign coffers from restaurant and alcohol industry groups in recent years. The industries have a variety of issues pending before Congress. But those who favor the drunken driving provision fear that these opponents will call in their chits this week.

The power of money

The alcohol industry has donated $1.7 million to federal candidates and political parties since 1997, and the National Restaurant Association has given $141,209, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Distiller Joseph E. Seagrams & Sons Inc., whose broad holdings include Universal Studios, was the second-largest donor to the Democratic and Republican parties in the 1996 election season, giving nearly $2 million. That was surpassed only by the $3 million of Philip Morris Cos., the tobacco giant, which also owns Miller Brewing Co.

The sudden burst of activity has frayed tempers, with recriminations flying from both sides.

"The American public does not realize what happens in the nation's capital," said a disheartened Karolyn Nunnallee, the newly elected national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, referring to the torrent of money pouring in from 'N opponents of the measure. "I am shocked. I didn't learn this in Civics 101."

For their part, the measure's critics question the motives of the other side.

"This is all politics, all about grabbing headlines," countered John Doyle, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, which represents some of the largest restaurant chains, such as Hooters, T.G.I. Friday's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. "There's not a line, not a paragraph [in this proposal] to go after the real drunk drivers."

The lobbying over the House measure is startling because there had been little such activity before the Senate voted to attach the same blood-alcohol amendment to its version of the transportation bill.

Critics say the alcohol and restaurant lobbies have more sway with House members, many of whom are in greater need of campaign cash and are longtime advocates of the right of states to shape laws covering such issues as drunken driving.

Fifteen states have adopted a 0.08 blood-alcohol standard, but many others -- including Maryland -- have rejected such proposals. Under the federal proposal, states would lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funding unless they adopted the lower standard.

In Maryland, a driver can be charged with driving under the influence at a 0.07 blood-alcohol concentration, but the threshold is 0.10 for the more serious driving while intoxicated charge.

Highway safety groups say the states-rights strategy advanced by opponents of the provision allows members of Congress to avoid confronting the emotional issue of drunken driving, while pushing the fight to statehouses, where the alcohol and restaurant lobbies can overwhelm the other side.

"States' rights resonates," said Doyle, the beverage group spokesman. "It's the one congressmen feel most comfortable about."

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