Lobbyists Swarm Hill Over Legal Reforms

THE fight over reforming the legal system is sparking the most frenetic lobbying on Capitol Hill since last year's health-care debate.

Big business is attacking. Lawyers are defending. Talk-shows are buzzing. TV spots are running. It's almost enough to divert attention from the O.J. Simpson trial. ``We will spend whatever it takes to win this,'' says Frank Coleman of the US Chamber of Commerce, refering to the group's campaign in favor of ``tort'' reform.

The chamber, along with countless other business organizations, is pelting the nation's airwaves with radio and TV spots designed to pressure undecided lawmakers to vote for a series of sweeping liability reform bills being debated in the House this week. The measures are generally opposed by consumer groups and trial lawyers.

The chamber calls its drive a ``grass-roots effort.'' Its radio ads spotlight out-of-control lawsuits. Outraged listeners are urged to call their local representatives. The spots are dropped when a lawmaker has taken a position.

Are the campaigns working?

``Our phones have been ringing off the hook,'' says Mike Armini, an aide to Rep. Peter Torkildsen (R) of Massachusetts, a target of the chamber's ads. Mr. Torkildsen supports tort reforms, but has reservations about a couple of the House measures.

How much money the chamber is spending on the ad campaign is secret. ``I will tell you that last year we spent $18 million to $20 million influencing legislation,'' Coleman says.

By the time it's all over, The National Federation of Independent Business will have sent over 400,000 ``Action Alerts'' to its members, urging them to berate their lawmakers in their own words.

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