Lobbies Line Up For Relief Riches
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
With Congress dangling as much as $200 billion in hurricane-related aid, lobbyists for oil companies, airlines, manufacturers and others are clamoring to get their share.
"It's been all Katrina all the time, and now it's Rita, too," said J. Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen PLLC, a top lobbying firm in the capital. "Except for the Supreme Court, hurricane recovery is what Congress will be up to so we have no choice but to adapt."
Lawmakers are receptive to many of these requests, congressional aides said. For example, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) is moving legislation this week, much of it recommended by lobbyists, that would waive regulations to help oil companies build new refineries. The reason: the hurricanes drew attention to the nation's dependence on a small row of Gulf coast refineries.
The oil lobbyists, like so many others, are using the storms as an excuse to win long-sought legislation, even when their plans relate only tangentially to the hurricanes.
Earlier this week groups as diverse as the American Institute of Architects and the American Petroleum Institute were freshening their requests for tax breaks and other favors. The architects changed "Katrina" to "hurricane disaster" in their pitch.
The troubled airline industry has been particularly active on the hurricane front. Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. are trying to include relief from their pension obligations in hurricane legislation this year. The firms have been pressing for the change since the spring, before the hurricane season, but are telling lawmakers that the fuel price hikes in the wake of Katrina have made the aid more necessary.
"Katrina adds an urgency," said Benet J. Wilson, a Delta spokeswoman said. But so far the proposal remains stalled.
The Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group, is seeking a national change in response to the regional devastation. It wants Congress to waive for a year the 4.3 cent-per-gallon tax on jet fuel, a plan that would cost $600 million. "Katrina exacerbated an already untenable situation with respect to the price of oil on our industry," said James C. May, president of the association.
"I am quite confident there will be many who make that charge -- that we are self serving," May said. "But I am equally confident that the impact that Katrina had on this industry is real."
Insurers have been using Katrina as an argument for approving their long-held top priority, an extension of the Terrorism Reinsurance Act (TRIA), which provides for the government to pay a portion of the damage caused by a foreign terrorist attack over certain thresholds. To illustrate the tie between the hurricane and the legislative effort, Carl M. Parks, senior vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, has coined the term "KA-TRIA."
Farmers, even those outside the disaster zone, are begging for hurricane cash. "It is important to remember that the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina is harming much more of U.S. agriculture than producers in those three states," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, wrote to legislators. "As the Senate and House Appropriations Committees prepare to address this natural disaster, we urge you to include emergency disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers."
The nation's for-profit hospitals are trying to persuade Congress to carve an exception into a decades-old law specifying that only nonprofit institutions qualify for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild critical facilities after a natural calamity. "Storms do not damage hospitals based on their ownership status," said Richard Coorsh, spokesman for the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents investor-owned hospitals.