The Antitrust Equal Enforcement Act, pending before the Senate, could relieve corporations from price-fixing liabilities retroactively. An article in yesterday's Washington Post erroneously reported that the bill "would" provide such relief.
Oozing up around the "must" money bills that the lame-duck session of Congress must deal with to keep the government running is a passel of special-interest legislation, worth billions of dollars to its promoters and waiting to slide to passage in the session's dying hours.
Among pork-barrel items likely to surface are bills allowing antitrust exemptions to major industries, corporate tax breaks, timber bailouts, cream for dairymen, more freedom for doctors and pesticide makers, a railroad giveaway in Alaska, trade protections, help for water polluters, bankruptcy law changes and relief for price-fixers.
The time is right for these and still more like them if past congresses are a guide. Either separately or as riders attached to other measures, many of these can be expected to pop up in the final-hours' hurly-burly of the House and Senate.
In a lame-duck session lasting only about three weeks and with much to do, lobbying pressures intensify. With long daily sessions assured, attention spans will be short, some eyes averted and eagerness to go home paramount. On top of this, 84 of the 535 lawmakers are lame ducks--they will not return, and they are accountable to no one.
It all makes for what, in the spirit of a rollicking, roistering Congress on the way out, Jerome M. Zeifman describes as an atmosphere in which "any combination of events is possible, and anything can happen."
Zeifman works with the National Institute of Economics and Law to short-circuit some of the special-interest deals. The institute last week trotted out Alfred Kahn, President Carter's adviser on inflation, and Marvin H. Kosters of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to denounce five of the pending measures.
The formal titles of these bills do little to reveal their real intent.
For instance, the Shipping Act of 1982 has passed the House but is being stopped in the Senate by the objection of Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who calls it simply "atrocious." It grants broad antitrust immunity to ocean liner cartels, eliminating a public-interest standard they now must meet in setting rates. Its fate is uncertain.
Another is the Malt Beverage Interbrand Competition Act of 1982. Alluding to pork-barrel and log-rolling, some wags have dubbed it the "Beer Barrel Porka." It would allow exclusive franchises for beer distributors, discouraging competition between distributors of the same brand.
The timber industry would like to cut a wide swath through the lame-duck session.
On one issue, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) is pushing a White House-opposed plan to relieve timber companies of more than $2 billion in federal timber contract obligations. Bidding high on public timber and then stuck with unfulfilled contracts when the lumber market collapsed, they now want out. Cost to the Treasury is estimated at $2.6 billion.
Even more controversial is the Antitrust Equal Enforcement Act, also known as the "Price Fixers Relief Act." It would allow a few corporations convicted of price fixing to avoid paying more than $2 billion in damages.
Among the beneficiaries would be some of the largest paper and pulp companies, including Weyerhaeuser, Willamette and Georgia-Pacific, which would be relieved retroactively of price-fixing liabilities.
Corporate America has paid more than $800,000 to a star-studded cast of lobbyists to get the bill passed, but Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) have vowed to filibuster -- to talk it to death, that is -- if necessary. The bill, Rudman says, "shocks my sensibilities."
But the corporate shopping list does not end there.
Many retailers are upset at the prospect of another lurking antitrust bill that would extend market monopolies to a narrow class of office equipment dealers. And many water-polluting industries are applauding an expected move by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) to push for a quick reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, with relief from certain costly pre-treatment requirements.
In another environmental area, chemical companies are pushing the Senate to water down and reauthorize the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, which governs the multibillion-dollar pesticide and herbicide industry. The bill is bitterly opposed, and its chances of passage are seen as poor.
There also is pressure, largely from the influential Business Roundtable, for House passage of a Senate-adopted bill requiring a cost-benefit analysis of all new major federal regulations. Negotiations on a compromise were under way when the House broke for its election recess.
Some doctors have found a new way to spell relief--by plumping for passage of a bill that would prohibit the Federal Trade Commission from investigating or regulating health professionals. Critics fear the bill, by stopping FTC reviews of anticompetitive practices, would reduce competition and stifle innovation.
Wall Street is interested in a Senate gem that would shorten the capital gains holding period from one year to six months. If enacted, the tax-law change would result in a break of about $200 million annually, going almost entirely to affluent taxpayers. The Finance Committee has added this to a minor House tax bill, but its prospects of survival are regarded as iffy at best.
Over Metzenbaum's objections, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is expected to renew his efforts to give the federally owned Alaska Railroad and its valuable right of way to his home state. Their feuding over the $500-million-plus gift led to angry name-calling just before the recess.
In this something-for-everyone atmosphere, dairy farmers stand to benefit from a sleeper attached to the Senate's agriculture appropriations bill, which will be in conference. As consumer representatives cried foul, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) won approval of a new milk-solids standard that they claim will raise prices sharply on low-fat milk at the retail level.
And the House is almost certain to vote on legislation prohibiting importation of foreign cars unless they meet complex domestic-content requirements covering materials, labor and capital expenditures in the United States.
If that is not enough to force sleepless nights and riled digestion in a lame-duck Congress being convened mostly to deal with vital money bills to keep the government running, at least one other dandy is waiting in the wings.
Unless they vote against it, members of Congress will get an automatic pay raise of up to $16,648 per year, starting in January.