Higher "sin taxes" on alcohol and cigarettes are a deficit-buster that, according to the polls, more than 80 percent of Americans could live with. But overwhelming public support is no guarantee of overwhelming congressional support. Every two years, Congress listens to the people. Every day, Congress listens to special interest lobbyists.
Federal excise taxes on beer have not been increased since 1951. One special interest lobby, The Beer Drinkers of America, is tailor-made to maintain the status quo. Its name conjures up an image of good-time guys -- 500,000 members -- who just want to preserve their right to keep and bear beer.
But the group might more appropriately be called the Beer Makers of America. Its membership is heavy with bartenders, bar owners and beer vendors, and it relies on contributions from the big brewers, including Miller and Anheuser-Busch.
The Beer Drinkers are a registered lobby, but the group hasn't filed any financial statements with Congress for a year (the statements are due quarterly). Maybe the staff has been too busy trying to stop sin taxes.
Earlier this spring, Capitol Hill was inundated with petitions from the Beer Drinkers warning against a tax increase.
Rep. Andy Ireland (R-Fla.) wrote back to constituents whose names were on those petitions. "Imagine my surprise," Ireland reported in a letter to his colleagues in the House, "when I began receiving letters from bewildered constituents." Some whose names appeared on the petitions said they had never heard of Beer Drinkers of America. They favored an excise tax increase and they were miffed that someone had signed their names.
Bill Schreiber, executive director of Beer Drinkers, told our reporter Paul Zimmerman that all the signatures were legitimate, and that the people must have forgotten that they signed.
Last year, the Beer Drinkers' newsletter, "Heads Up," reported that the Congressional Budget Office opposed the tax increase too. But the CBO only gathers data for Congress. It does not take sides. CBO Director Robert D. Reischauer demanded, and got, a retraction from the Beer Drinkers.
Beer Drinkers, headquartered in Costa Mesa, Calif., describes itself as a non-profit consumer organization. Schreiber says half of the group's support comes from consumers and the rest from the brewing industry.
But in the Beer Drinkers' 1989 strategy, called a "Field Operations Plan," the emphasis is on attracting money not from beer drinkers but from beer sellers. The group set as its goal $200,000 from 400 beer wholesalers and $50,000 from 5,000 consumers paying $10 each in membership dues.
The battle plan against higher excise taxes was to schedule meetings to bend the ears of 36 senators, 296 representatives, 18 governors and numerous other state politicians.
With President Bush's abandonment of his "no new taxes" promise, the Beer Drinkers launched a "major national member alert" last month. The goal is to get 200,000 people to write to Congress in protest.