Gone are the unseemly days of "wall-to-wall Guccis," when lobbyists would line up by the hundreds outside the Senate Finance Committee room, jockeying for a handful of seats at one of the highest-stakes shows in town: the making of a tax bill.
This year, to the delight of hundreds of corporate lobbyists clamoring for access, the panel has wired itself for sound and piped its proceedings into the 500-seat Dirksen Office Building auditorium two floors below. There, lobbyists and their aides gather daily to monitor the disembodied voices of 20 senators -- while enjoying new freedom to smoke, drink coffee, curse the senators under their breath and, when the going gets dull, read the newspaper.
"This is the most civilized markup [bill drafting] we've had in years," said Dave Franasiak, a Washington lobbyist for Standard Oil Co.
It is, of course, something of a drawback not to see the senators as they debate the tax issues of the day. But the accountants, lawyers, paralegals and lobbyists in the auditorium have been through so many tax bills that they recognize the senators as easily by voice as in the flesh.
There is the broad western timbre of Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), the midwestern twang of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the good-ol'-boy drawl of Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), the patrician syllables of Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), the slow, deep bass of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.).
The auditorium is a study in the political pressures behind a tax bill.
The room was hushed as a sanctuary as the committee debated the big-bucks issue of corporate tax deductions for equipment this week. But no sooner had Grassley begun promoting a tax benefit for struggling farmers than dozens of listeners put down their pens and reached for their newspapers.
"You'd have to say there aren't that many people here interested in insolvent farmers," Donna Steele, a tax paralegal monitoring the debate for the law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, explained apologetically.
An advantage of the remote setting is that listeners no longer have to sit politely and keep smiling when committee members try to gore their clients. For example, as Bradley, a longtime advocate of tax overhaul, argued this week for curbs on depreciation write-offs, one lobbyist in the audience was heard to mutter: "He sounds like he's going steady with Bob McIntyre."
McIntyre, tax policy director of the labor-backed Citizens for Tax Justice, has become a corporate nemesis with his widely publicized studies on how General Electric, General Dynamics, and other profitable corporations avoid paying federal taxes thanks to benefits in the system.
Earlier, when Bradley offered ill-fated amendments to curb oil industry tax benefits and use the revenue to lower individual tax rates, another listener told a colleague in a knowing whisper: "Bradley just doesn't understand the realities of the oil industry."
The listeners range from interns to $100-an-hour lobbyists. General Motors, IBM, U.S. Steel and other big corporations send both in-house lobbyists and Washington lawyers they have hired.
Though everyone now has access to the debate, all are under pressure somehow to show nervous clients that they know more than anyone else -- and sooner. Lawyers and accounting firm employes representing the same clients keep watchful eyes on each other; if one heads for the telephone, the other makes a beeline in the same direction.
"You want to get those brownie points with the client," a lawyer said.
When Chafee said he hadn't heard from retailers on a particular issue, several people who represent retailers rushed to the phones. An aide said Chafee was "inundated" with calls from retailers, from Rhode Island and beyond.
Because the stakes are so high for corporations, several law and accounting firms tape-record the sessions so clients can hear the tones of senators' voices rather than relying on typed summaries.
Most sessions are also carried on cable television by C-SPAN. "Some people have asked me to videotape it on my VCR so they can see who's shaking his head or who's frowning," said Robert F. Martin, a manager with Price Waterhouse.
In the remote listening area, tax-watchers can rest assured that they will be spared humiliations such as the one suffered during the 1982 tax bill debate. That year, an aide to then-Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kans.) peered into the hallway and reported to his boss, "There's wall-to-wall Guccis out there."
"It really was kind of unseemly," shrugged Franasiak.