Congressional Bipartisanship and Big Contributors
Moderation. Conciliation. Bipartisanship. ThatÕs the new mantra wafting from Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle; indeed, most members of the brand new 105th Congress.The words may be reassuring to an electorate fed up with years of gridlock and partisan bickering. TheyÕre certainly good news for big campaign contributors. When Congress hunkers down and gets things done, the result is a whole caravan of legislative vehicles for arcane loopholes and other special fixes.Consider the legacy of last-minute laws passed by the 104th Congress, once lawmakers stopped wrangling and started doing. Tucked into the fine print of popular laws raising the minimum wage and requiring health insurance portability were provisions crafted specifically for generous contributors.The minimum wage bill, for example, harbored a new tax credit for restaurants and pizza delivery companies ($2.5 million in PAC and soft money contributions, 1996 cycle); a phase-out of the automobile luxury tax, sought by auto makers and dealers, (contributions of $4.2 million); and reversal of a tax on corporationsÕ overseas earnings, lobbied by pharmaceutical and computer companies (contributions of $9.8 million). These special breaks explained in the new Center for Responsive Politics report, "Cashing In: A Guide to Money, Votes, and Public Policy in the 104th Congress" -- will cost taxpayers more than $590 million over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.But the 104th Congress adjourned without tackling many of the most hotly contested issues, which are on the table for action in the new Congress. HereÕs a taste of tax breaks and other benefits that big campaign contributors will seek from the 105th Congress. The high cost of flying When 1996 expired, so did the 10 percent airline ticket tax you pay. Without it, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency responsible for overseeing air transportation and safety, loses $500 million a month. A coalition of seven major airlines -- United, American, USAir, Northwest, Continental, Delta, and TWA -- wants Congress to change the ticket tax to base it on distance rather than ticket cost. This proposal, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported in December, would shift $600 million in cost from the large airlines to discount airlines and might "result in higher fares and a reduction in service options for consumers." The "group of seven" airlines distributed $1.5 million in PAC and soft money contributions during the 1996 election cycle, nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.And beer drinkingThe beer industry is also in line for a tax-code change: eliminating the 1991 beer tax increase. "American beer drinkers are getting nickled and dimed by the government every time they buy a beer," the Beer Institute complains in newspaper and magazine ads. (The campaign has its own Web page: www.beertaxes.com). In 1995, beer taxes raised $3.3 billion in revenues for the federal government. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, claims beer taxes promote safety, citing a National Bureau of Economic Research estimate that the 1991 beer tax increase prevents 600 deaths of young people a year in drunken-driving accidents. Beer manufacturers distributed nearly $950,000 in PAC and soft money contributions during the 1996 election cycle, and liquor stores and wholesalers contributed $1.84 million more.Driving not drinkingISTEA is pronounced like the drink, but stands for the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act, the $180 billion-plus highway funding bill up for renewal this year. The transportation and construction industries already are lobbying House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) for pieces of the funding pie. In November, The Oregonian of Portland reported that city transit officials advocating a light-rail project held a fund-raiser for Shuster, who made similar stops in Maryland, Texas, and other states. The chairmanship has proved lucrative for ShusterÕs fund-raising: He received one-third more from transportation and construction PACs for his 1996 race ($240,000) than in 1994 ($177,000). His son Bob, who lost a 1996 primary bid for a nearby Pennsylvania seat, raised nearly $70,000 from the same sources.Traveling nukesThe nuclear industry has a different sort of interest in the nationÕs highways -- it wants to use them to transport radioactive waste. Over the past 35 years, nuclear power plants have produced some 32,000 metric tons of spent radioactive fuel, and theyÕre running out of storage space. Last summer, the Senate passed a bill to establish temporary storage space at Yucca Mountain, Nev. This solution is not exactly popular with the Nevada delegation or environmental groups, who argue that possible highway accidents might be lethal. The House failed to act before the 104th Congress recessed, and the industry is pushing hard for swift passage this year. Nuclear utilities gave $3 million in PAC and soft money in the 1996 elections.Electrifying profitsNuclear utilities have a stake in another huge debate brewing on Capitol Hill: electricity deregulation. Last year, Rep. Dan Schaefer (R-Texas) introduced legislation to allow consumers to shop around for the best electric rates, rather than relying on their local utility. Nuclear utilities are ill-suited for such a competitive environment, having sunk millions of dollars into expensive technology, an expense that other utilities donÕt share. If deregulation happens, say the nuclear utilities, the government should compensate them for these "stranded" costs. Some companies, however, are pushing hard for speedy, total deregulation. Enron, a Texas-based natural gas and energy marketing firm, supports a bill introduced by local congressman and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Enron and its executives gave at least $10,750 to DeLayÕs 1996 campaign and $10,500 to his leadership PAC. DeLayÕs bill calls for deregulation by 1998 and could disadvantage utilities with "stranded" costs.Side bar:Reporters' TipIf you have a computer, a modem, and a burning curiosity about whether a lawmakerÕs votes are influenced by campaign contributions, then click on www.crp.org to view the Center for Responsive PoliticsÕ new report, "Cashing In: A Guide to Money, Votes, and Public Policy in the 104th Congress." The interactive version of the report lets browsers conduct customized searches of the relationship between how lawmakers vote and who funds their campaigns. The information is especially valuable to reporters covering the 105th Congress, because many of the key issues debated in the last session await action this year. And the Web site gives reporters, activists, and ordinary citizens around the country access to the same information about members of Congress as Capitol Hill insiders. The report explores 42 issues and 28 related votes lobbied by big campaign contributors during the 104th Congress, including the B-2 bomber, endangered species protection, and peanut subsidies. The CenterÕs analysis shows that in case after case, campaign contributors distributed their money to supportive lawmakers. For example, the 61 senators who voted to preserve the federal sugar subsidy program received an average of $13,500 from sugar industry PACs between 1991 and 1996. The 35 senators voting to eliminate the program got an average of $1,500 from these PACs. Browsers can conduct their own searches to compare lawmakersÕ votes to campaign contributions from relevant interests. For example, a browser can query how the California congressional delegation voted on a bill to cut funding for Northrop GrummanÕs B-2 bomber, and how much the members received from the companyÕs PAC. Or how many Democrats voted for tobacco subsidies and how much they received from tobacco PACs. Or how your own representative or senator voted on a host of issues, along with how much he or she received from relevant PACs. The Internet version also lets browsers educate themselves on issues by linking to Web sites of interest groups on both sides of contentious policy issues. Print versions of the report are also available by calling the Center at 202/857-0044.