With more than a half-dozen major bills teetering on the brink of final congressional action, lobbyists for a variety of corporate interests are trying to take advantage of the confusion to secure provisions that might have gone nowhere in more leisurely and open proceedings.
On Tuesday, a coalition that includes Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc. won the backing of the House Ways and Means Committee for repeal of a Civil War-era tax on stores that sell beer, wine and spirits. A day later, lobbyists for Hollywood studios, cable television giants and professional sports leagues rushed to Capitol Hill to defend a last-minute legislative change that, they say, could prevent unauthorized poaching on their turf and products by Internet companies.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, officials of electric utility companies cited recently by the Clinton administration for violations of the Clean Air Act gathered at the Willard Hotel to consider ways to win last-minute relief. They were hoping to obtain wording in one of several pending spending bills to allow them to keep operating without being exposed to additional criminal or civil penalties, sources said.
The opportunities for skilled lobbyists arise from a crushing end-of-session agenda that has forced GOP leaders to press ahead simultaneously with dozens of initiatives and created a cover for favor-seekers. Congress could finish work in the next few days on five annual spending bills, a bankruptcy bill and a bill setting rules for satellite television broadcasters. At the same time, GOP leaders are looking for vehicles on which to attach tax, minimum wage and Medicare initiatives.
"The special-interest sharks are circling, and we're concerned the end result of this last-minute feeding frenzy will be more air and water pollution, and taxpayers footing the bill for risky development," said U.S. Public Interest Research Group staff attorney Lexi Shultz. In particular, she cited efforts by West Virginia mining interests to win exemptions from environmental laws and a push by big insurance companies for federal protections from catastrophic losses.
"All of the agendas that were unable to move forward through the past year because they're not popular or politically supportable are being addressed in the back door of the budget process without public hearing, public debate or open voting," said Greg Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But corporate lobbyists said dire circumstances merit immediate legislative attention in some cases. Bill Kovacs, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Environmental Protection Agency's recent crackdown on alleged polluters "literally could stop all maintenance activities at utilities across the United States."
The hectic lobbying activity is testimony to the enormous stakes in the unfolding legislation for U.S. business, a fact that inevitably draws corporate America in as a major participant in shaping important bills.
That was apparent Tuesday when the addition of seven words to a bill setting rules for satellite television operators erupted into a major storm that had lawyers and lobbyists for Internet companies squaring off against representatives of the entertainment industry.
The trigger was language added 11 days ago during drawn-out, closed-door negotiations between GOP committee staff members. The words made clear that Internet providers do not have the same automatic right as cable companies to retransmit movies and other programming under a "compulsory license."
Washington representatives of Internet companies got wind of the wording early this week, and rushed to battle stations, sources said. But by then, it was too late to influence the House version of the bill, which passed Tuesday night.
But with the bill now before the Senate, which reconvenes for regular business next week, intense lobbying continued. On Wednesday, Internet providers representing America Online, Yahoo and a coalition including Amazon.com laid out their grievances at a sometimes stormy meeting in the Rayburn House Office Building called by Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that helped draft the bill.
They charged that the provision had been written into the satellite bill without giving Internet companies a fair hearing, and had masqueraded as an uncontroversial "technical" change.
One computer industry representative described the provision as "absolutely horrible. . . . This is Congress picking winners and losers when they don't know what they're talking about."
But arrayed on the other side of the room was the front line of the U.S. entertainment industry: representatives of Hollywood studios, professional sports leagues, music companies, cable operators and broadcasters. These groups, sources said, were wary that unregulated, globally operating Internet providers could provide unfair competition for local cable companies and could alter film and video materials.
In a statement yesterday, President Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America said his industry was "excited about the tremendous potential of the Internet, but the online service giants are simply trying to obtain valuable creative material without paying fairly for it."
The controversy, whose implications for the future of Internet regulation normally would make it a focus of news media attention, was all but ignored in the swirl of last-minute bill-drafting.
A bipartisan package to raise the minimum wage served as another intense battleground for corporate interests seeking tax relief. A coalition of businesses, powered primarily by the National Association of Convenience Stores and represented by lobbyists from PricewaterhouseCoopers, focused on a little-known tax initially aimed at raising money for the Civil War known as the Special Occupational Tax on Alcohol.
In 1987, Congress raised the annual tax on stores to $250. With thousands of convenience stores affected nationwide, eliminating the obscure provision has picked up support from Democrats and Republicans.
"It became clear to me it's an anachronism in the code," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.), who agreed to include repeal as one of only two new provisions in a tax package accompanying his panel's proposal to raise the minimum wage. The bill could be on the House floor by Tuesday.
Meanwhile, five pending bills funding the operations of federal departments, agencies and the District of Columbia provide an alluring target for lobbyists, because Congress must complete work on those measures and send them to the president before adjournment.
Nextel Communications Inc., for example, is seeking language in one bill that would pave the way for it to acquire wireless communications licenses held by several competitors in bankruptcy proceedings. The Clinton administration and key senators back resale of the licenses, but it has been opposed in the House.
The resale provision would enable Congress to offset some of the additional spending members want, a cogent argument in the final days of any session.
Also waiting final action on the Senate floor is a bill overhauling bankruptcy law. The measure, strongly backed by credit card companies, includes language enabling automobile companies to seek recovery of the full unpaid balance on car loans from individuals in Chapter 13 bankruptcies--a change from current law that forces them to settle for the value of the car.
The provision has been sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), who represents the home state of the major auto manufacturers.
Insurance companies, by contrast, have focused their attention on yet another moving part--special legislation that would set up a federal reinsurance fund to forestall huge losses in the case of major catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
Working through a coalition, the Home Insurance Federation of America, which paid an outside lobbyist $80,000 last year, a small group of major insurance firms corralled bipartisan support, especially among members from coastal states vulnerable to disasters.
With strong backing from Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), who was first approached about the issue by the industry three years ago, a catastrophic insurance bill was passed by the House Banking Committee on Wednesday. But it seemed unlikely to pass before Congress adjourns for the year.