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Liquor Firms Increase Gifts at Sensitive Time

Congress poised to take up issue of alcohol ads, teens

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 1996


The alcohol industry is stepping up its political contributions at a time when liquor advertising on TV is becoming an important national issue.

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Over the past two years, beer, wine, and liquor companies have doubled their contributions to the two major political parties and become one of the top five donors to both Republicans and Democrats.

Joseph E. Seagram & Sons was the nation's second largest corporate contributor to Congress and the political parties. Beer producer Anheuser-Busch was the eighth largest donor. The spending comes at a time when the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are starting to look closely at the impact of alcohol advertising on teens. Congress also plans hearings.

"This is a sticky issue. The industry is going to call in their chits and the lawmakers will be looking for ways to please these people without saying they are in favor of kids drinking," says Nancy Watzman of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group in Washington.

Liquor advertising became an issue last June when Joseph E. Seagram & Sons broke a long voluntary ban on TV ads. The move was endorsed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), which represents the industry in Washington. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana, whose subcommittee will hold hearings early next year on the issue, recently indicated to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he might support advertising by liquor producers.

The Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R.) of Arizona, is also expected to hold hearings. Senator McCain is married to Cindy Hensley, whose family owns an Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Tempe, Ariz.

In the 1995-96 election cycle, Jim Hensley (Cindy's father) or his company donated a total of $19,750 to individual representatives and $30,000 to each of the political parties. McCain has indicated he will recuse himself from any votes on the issue.

Like other industries, alcohol interests not only give direct donations, they try to influence lawmakers and their staffs with lobbyists. For example, this year Seagram hired five separate lobbying firms. Among Seagram's pitchmen: William Daley, the new Commerce secretary-designate.

Part of the recent increase in spending represents differences within the alcohol industry itself. Beer manufacturers, for instance, oppose liquor advertising on TV. They worry that if Congress starts to look into liquor ads, it will end up putting limits on the entire alcohol industry. But liquor manufacturers argue it would be unfair to allow beer producers on TV and leave them out. Thus both sides are lobbying hard.

War of lobbies

The effect of all this money, alcohol-control groups say, is an unlevel playing field. They complain that liquor and beer companies get access to important committee members that they can't - and in Washington access is power.

"They return their phone calls," says George Hacker, director of alcohol policies for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a lobby group. "We generally cannot get our calls returned, especially on the Senate side."

Spokesmen for the industry offer a different view. David K. Rehr, vice president for government relations at the National Beer Wholesalers Association, says his group spent $1.5 million through its political action committee to try to counter money spent by trial lawyers, liberal activists, and anti-alcohol groups.

In addition, he says, "We saw this as a historic election to retain a pro-small-business Congress since a lot of our members are small businessmen."