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Special Interests: Since Sept. 11, Lobbyists Use New Pitches for Old Pleas
3 December 2001
Washington - The war against terrorism has created some novel pitches from Washington lobbyists, now swarming over the capital as Congress tries to wrap up its business for the year.
The American Traffic Safety Services Association, whose members make traffic signs, is arguing that more federal money is needed for road signs to prevent traffic jams after terror attacks. California date growers have petitioned the White House and the Pentagon to buy dates for food packages being dropped in Afghanistan. They would be a treat for the Afghans during Ramadan, the growers maintain.
Since Sept. 11, many other business lobbyists have taken old pleas for federal help and turned them into new arguments for spending to combat terrorism. Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, is amused by the efforts to profit from patriotism. "No self-respecting lobbyist," he said, has not "repackaged his position as a patriotic response to the tragedy."
This, he said, is what he is hearing:
"The challenge is terrorism. The answer is re-establish telecommunications monopolies." "The challenge is terrorism. The answer is to drill for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge." "The challenge is terrorism. The answer is a $15 billion retroactive tax break to scores of corporations."
The minute he arrived at work on the morning of Sept. 12, a top aide to a Democratic senator recalled, he received a call from a lobbyist for the airline industry pushing for a repeal of the federal tax on jet fuel to help the industry in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
Over the next few days, the aide said, reading from his desk calendar and telephone logs, he heard from representatives of the travel, insurance, telecommunications and software industries, from lobbyists for farmers, pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers, and from several military contractors.
None of them asked for anything different from what they had sought from Congress before, the aide said, but all had new pitches presenting their cases as responses to the attacks.
Until Sept. 11, money was scarce. President Bush and Congress had said they would save the surplus in the Social Security accounts. But now, fiscal discipline has been played down, budget deficits are the order of the day and companies, unions and the range of interest groups want a slice of a vast new stimulus-military- bioterrorism-homeland defense pie.
The idea of making money from the attacks sounds so crass that few lobbyists are willing to talk about it openly. But James Albertine, a lobbyist who represents companies, trade associations and nonprofit organizations, was remarkably frank. "What happened was a tragedy, certainly, but there are opportunities," Mr. Albertine said. "We're in business. This is not a charity."
Paul C. Light, director of government studies at the Brookings Institution, put it directly. "This is the best of times for lobbyists," Mr. Light said. "All of a sudden, they are in a position where they can sell their clients on the possibility of success."
Some of the lobbyists have such clear cases that their clients were damaged by the terrorism and need immediate relief that the government has already come through or seems very likely to. The $15 billion package of aid and loan guarantees for the airline industry, enacted in September, i s an example, although some critics have assailed its size.
Insurance companies, which were busily lobbying in the House last week, can expect some form of federal protection against large losses from future terrorist attacks, although it remains unclear what form the aid will take. New York City has a strong claim for federal assistance to rebuild the devastated area, though the amount of money that will be available is a matter of considerable dispute.
As for economic stimulus, the Republican package the House of Representatives approved in October was made up principally of corporate tax breaks: larger write-offs for investments in plants and equipment, retroactive repeal of the alternative minimum tax, tax savings for financial services companies with operations abroad and a lower capital gains tax.
Michael Baroody, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, made this argument for how cutting corporate taxes would help revive the economy: "Companies are either going to invest the extra money in equipment, or they're going to invest it in jobs." But even Mr. Baroody, who put together a coalition of corporate lobbyists to press for prospective repeal of the minimum tax — a measure enacted in 1986 to make sure profitable companies could not escape income taxes — did not defend the House plan for repealing it retroactively. That plan, denounced by Democrats, would result in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax refunds to corporations, including International Business Machines, General Motors and General Electric.
Here are some other commercial interests that have adjusted their pitches in response to the attacks:
Many, maybe most, of these proposals will never become law or public policy. But that is not so important to lobbyists, said Charles Peters, the founding editor of The Washington Monthly magazine and a cryptographer of the codes of Washington. "I can hear them saying, `Oh, God, we fought hard on this amendment,' " Mr. Peters said. " `We got it through the House. That's worth another $2 million in billing.' "
When the Senate took up a bill to extend the moratorium on sales taxes on purchases over the Internet, both sides tried to take advantage of how times had changed. Those who wanted to end the moratorium said states needed the sales tax revenue because of their new expenses for homeland security. And those who wanted to continue the moratorium said taxes would further depress sales that have dropped since Sept. 11.
David E. Rosenbaum.