At the Tobacco Institute, the policy is simply not to talk about it. "At this point we really can't say anything . . . . It would only be speculative," Pam Jones says.
Similarly at the Aerospace Industries Association, a spokesman says, "There is nothing we are prepared to discuss." The organization, however, has hired John S. Nolan, former deputy assistant treasury secretary for tax policy, because the situation "required his kind of expertise."
The fearsome prospect that has both these trade associations watching every word is a tax increase, the selective tax increases the Reagan administration is reportedly considering to hold down the 1983 and subsequent budget deficits.
The tax increases may never even be proposed; the president is said to be resisting them. Congress is not even back in session yet. The industries are shadowboxing in a way, but they are lobbying assiduously to keep their taxes where they are.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, less reticent than the tobacco and aerospace groups, has sent a four-page, single-spaced letter to President Reagan to protest in advance any increase in the excise tax on alcohol.
An increase in the tax of the sort reportedly under study "would nullify the benefits of the 1981 Economic Recovery Program for industry . . . it is not sound public policy to punish a major industry on the basis of some organizations' perceived moral view . . . it would cause the layoffs of some employes, some small firms might be forced to close . . . it would have a serious regressive effect on the nation's middle and poor income families," the council wrote.
The organization, which represents the distillers of hard liquor, has even come up with a sympathetic study by the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, a firm originally run by Norman Ture, now treasury undersecretary for taxation; the study argues that "selective excise taxes should not be used merely to raise money. These taxes are distortionary."
The tax jousting all began last September when the Reagan administration first proposed some tax increases to help offset the big tax cut it pushed through Congress last summer; that tax cut was one of the factors forcing up projected future deficits to unacceptable levels.
Now the talk of tax increases has intensified. Possible affected industries include life insurance; beer, wine and hard liquor; tobacco; gasoline; companies that have been buying and selling tax breaks under the leasing provisions of last summer's legislation, and major contractors, particularly in the aerospace and weapons industries.
Reagan says he would still rather not increase taxes, but "it became a whole new ball game when the administration realized how much revenue had been given away" in the 1981 tax bill, Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, said.
It is a ball game in which lawyers and lobbyists may be the only sure winners, as the target industries work to keep up with the closed-door process of selecting tax increases, and try to stay off the list.
"There is not much I can say now," Charls E. Walker, president of a lobbying firm carrying his own name, said. Among tax lobbyists, Walker is widely believed to be setting up a coalition of companies to press for preservation of the leasing provisions in the 1981 tax bill.
Walker, whose clients include many corporations that have been losing money and can use the leasing provisions to sell tax breaks they do not need, said only that he has not yet "set up a coalition group in this firm."
A separate pro-leasing coalition has already been started by John Meagher, former House Ways and Means Committee Republican staff director and now chief of LTV Corp.'s Washington office. Last year, LTV sold over $30 million in tax breaks to an unidentified buyer. Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has indicated that Congress this year may rescind some of last year's leasing provisions.
While many industry groups are forming coalitions to fight the prospective tax hikes, other industries likely to be targets of revenue raising legislation are suspiciously eying one another.
One proposal under serious consideration by the president and Congress would be to double the excise tax on alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and hard liquor.
There are, however, those in the hard liquor industry who are very wary of their seeming bedfellows in the wine and beer industries. For someone buying a quart of bourbon, a doubled excise tax would amount to over $2. But for beer and wine it would be only a matter of cents, about 17 cents in the case of a six-pack, for example.
The beer and wine folks, one source with ties to the hard liquor industry said, might just want to sit on their hands and let the doubled tax go through, calculating that a significant number of martini and sour mash drinkers might find the extra dollars per bottle too much and switch to beer or wine.
Similarly, the cigar industry is trying hard to separate itself from the rest of the tobacco producers. Sharp, of the cigar association, said he has noticed in the discussion of the potential tax that the phrase " 'tobacco products' has given way to 'cigarettes,' " a shift in focus that could benefit cigar makers. "We find we are very unique," Sharp said, noting that cigar sales have taken a nosedive in recent years from nine billion in 1964 to four billion in 1980, with the only growth in expensive imported products.
He pointed out that in any battle, the industry has a sure supporter in Rep. Sam Gibbons, the second-ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee who represents Tampa, Fla., one of the few remaining centers of domestic cigar manufacturing.
In one of the quirks of the excise taxes situation, Phillip Morris faces the prospect of a one-two punch as the producer of cigarettes under its own name and as the owner of the Miller Brewing Co. No one from the firm's Washington office was available for comment on the company's position on the potential taxes.
Another proposal under consideration by the administation has the potential for splitting the life insurance industry between the mutual companies and the publicly owned ones. The revenue "enhancement" would close an arcane tax loophole used far more by the mutual life insurance companies to reduce tax liabilities than by the stock companies.
The industry, however, acting through its trade association, the American Council of Life Insurance, to date has been able to put up a united front: the council has implicity acknowledged the legitimacy of closing the loophole, but has countered with a proposal to revise insurance tax law completely in a way apparently acceptable to both factions within the industry.
"If they can hold together, they look like they are in pretty good shape," a congressional aide familiar with the issue said, predicting that Congress is likely to be receptive to much of the industry proposal.
An even more arcane proposal, but of potential major fiscal importance to a broad range of industries, is an administration suggestion that it may propose changes in the "completed contract" rule. Under law, contractors are able to defer tax liability until the completion of an entire project. Under the suggestion, they would presumably owe some taxes before then, on partial payments while a project was in process.
Perhaps those most vulnerable to a shift in these rules are aerospace and weapons companies that in many cases are involved in long-term contracts for producing missiles, tanks, airplanes and other products. If, under one scenario, the administration proposes using some form of unit accounting for tax purposes, these industries would no longer be able to have the advantage of deferring taxes over multiyear periods.
The administration might also move to restrict how quickly companies can deduct their costs on such multiyear contracts.
It is uncertainty over what the Reagan administration would propose for these rules that has prompted the Aerospace Industries Association to hire John Nolan.
The Associated Builders and Contractors, an organiation of 17,000 non-union contractors, has aleady begun to line up commitments of support from key members of Congress to fight any damaging changes in the completed contract rules.
Rep. Don Bailey (D-Pa.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, wrote: "I will . . . oppose any action to eliminate or substantially modify the completed contract option." Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) wrote to the organization: "I recognize that the hard-pressed construction industry would find it difficult, if not impossible, to bear the burden of any tax increase, including one of this nature."
Similarly, the Associated General Contractors of America has put together an ad hoc coalition to fight any changes in the regulations damaging to the industry. Among the participants are the National Electrical Contractors Association, the National Constructors Association and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors.