The "beer bill" keeps rolling, just like the Andrews Sisters' famous barrel, but some past supporters have decided not to polka.
Beer wholesalers have been trying for six years to get congressional permission to assign distribution monopolies in geographical areas. Consumer groups claim the monopolies would cause the retail price of beer to skyrocket, and they have enlisted opposition to the beer bill from the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the American Bar Association, among others.
One roadblock to the beer lobby's bill was a study last year by the Consumer Federation of America, which concluded that prices would rise if the bill passed. So the beer barons have studies of their own to present at a scheduled hearing on the bill before Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), chairman of the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee and a fierce opponent of the bill.
Not surprisingly, the studies gathered by the National Beer Wholesalers Association conclude that distribution monopolies do not increase the price of beer. An association spokesman said that competition among the different brands keeps six-pack prices down.
One study the beer wholesalers have in hand is described in the association's "Washington Update" newsletter and by an industry spokesman as the "Auburn University Study." It focuses on Alabama's 1984 version of the proposed nationwide beer law -- and concludes that beer prices didn't go up under the law, but dropped in some cases.
Our associate Stewart Harris obtained a copy of the study. Although the three authors taught at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., a disclaimer on the inside states clearly: "This study constitutes the research efforts and judgment solely of the authors and should not be taken to represent the views of Auburn University at Montgomery."
Above the disclaimer is the address of the Alabama Wholesale Beer and Wine Association, which paid for this study, according to A. Wayne Lacy, one of the researchers. But Lacy insisted that the research was conducted independently, according to academic standards.
Meanwhile, support for the national beer bill appears to be eroding among past adherents.
Sources tell us that a squabble erupted earlier this year when brewers represented by the Beer Institute warned the wholesalers that their campaign for the distribution-monoply bill could be counterproductive to the industry as a whole.
In a statement to Modern Brewery Age, a trade publication, the institute said the beer industry faces serious threats -- including suggested health warning labels on containers, a possible hike in the federal excise tax and a proposed ban on radio and television advertising. Beer Institute strategists are afraid that lobbying for the beer bill might alienate members of Congress whose help is needed on the other issues -- and could drive a deeper wedge between wholesalers and the retailers, who oppose the beer bill.
Two Democratic presidential hopefuls who have supported the beer bill in the past, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Paul Simon (Ill.), were unavailable for comment.