Lobby ef­fort uses drunk driv­ers to cash in

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY LUKE ROSIAK

As House lead­ers pre­pare to roll out a mas­sive six-year high­way fund­ing bill, among the many in­ter­ests watch­ing with an­tic­i­pa­tion are a hand­ful of busi­nesses that have pressed for a re­quire­ment that could take them from cot­tage in­dus­try to mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar mar­ket overnight.

The cam­paign by the man­u­fac­tur­ers of in-car de­vices to test blood al­co­hol lev­els is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful model of lob­by­ing in which for-profit busi­nesses align with al­tru­is­tic ac­tivist groups to im­ple­ment gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions that cre­ate a cap­tive mar­ket for their prod­ucts.

A bill that would with­hold up to 5 per­cent of each state’s high­way fund­ing un­less that state re­quires such as de­vice in the cars of all con­victed drunken driv­ers was in­tro­duced in the Se­nate in Fe­bru­ary by Sen. Frank R. Laut­en­berg, New Jer­sey Demo­crat, and last month in the House by Rep. Eliot L. En­gel, New York Demo­crat.

For the past 18 months, lob­by­ists for “ig­ni­tion in­ter­locks,” as they are called, have jock­eyed to in­ject a pro­vi­sion into the crevices of the trans­porta­tion reau­tho­riza­tion bill, a ten­ta­tive out­line of which was re­leased July 8 by Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Repub­li­can.

The hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try says a man­date could pave the way for a dif­fer­ent type of sen­sor, other than a Breath­a­lyzer, to be made stan­dard in all cars within five years, in line with a sep­a­rate House pro­posal in­tro­duced last month that would al­lo­cate $60 mil­lion over that pe­riod to de­velop the tech­nol­ogy. Those de­vices would be set to de­tect blood al­co­hol con­tent near the legal limit, likely through skin con­tact with the steer­ing wheel.

The Coali­tion of Ig­ni­tion In­ter­lock Man­u­fac­tur­ers hired lob­by­ist David Kelly, a for­mer chief of staff and acting ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Na­tional High­way and Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion. which rep­re­sents the al­co­hol in­dus­try.

Twelve states now re­quire first-time DUI of­fend­ers to in­stall a de­vice, she said.

All sides want to curb drunken driv­ing and sup­port rules that re­quire those con­victed of driv­ing while un­der the in­flu­ence to out­fit their cars with in­ter­locks, she said, but her group wants them re­served for re­peat of­fend­ers, high blood al­co­hol con­tent cases and oth­ers where a judge

The battle high­lights the con­trol the fed­eral gov­ern­ment can ex­ert over the states in ar­eas in which it dis­burses sig­nif­i­cant funds, in­clud­ing for in­fra­struc­ture such as high­ways. “When the drink­ing age was raised, it was the same thing, and Wis­con­sin was the last one to cave, big drink­ing tra­di­tion. And they fi­nally did,” said Peter Van Doren, edi­tor of the quar­terly jour­nal Reg­u­la­tion. “You do have the right to turn down fed­eral money. It’s just that no one chooses to do so.”

Mr. Laut­en­berg’s for­mer chief of staff, Tim Yehl, now lob­bies for Ig­ni­tion In­ter­lock Sys­tems of Iowa.

“[Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing] and the in­ter­lock man­u­fac­tur­ers are lob­by­ing like mad. They are up on the Hill talk­ing about it all the time, and you’ve got a lot of leg­is­la­tors who don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to dis­ap­point them,” said Sarah Long­well, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Bev­er­age In­sti­tute, deems them nec­es­sary.

The man­u­fac­tur­ers are tak­ing a page from a well-worn play­book: lob­by­ing cam­paigns in which pri­vate com­pa­nies ad­vo­cate for gov­ern­ment re­quire­ments that would make them rich by align­ing with ac­tivist forces who pro­vide moral pro­nounce­ments that are ap­peal­ing to politi­cians and, once on the ta­ble, the pub­lic.

Pro­duc­ers of corn ethanol, af­ter years spend­ing tens of mil- lions of dol­lars on K Street lob­by­ists in Wash­ing­ton and cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, saw their prod­uct mixed with gaso­line in sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties be­cause of man­dates in­cluded in broader fuel stan­dards trum­peted by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.

In Cal­i­for­nia, the state prison guard union con­trib­uted to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns at ev­ery level and co­or­di­nated with vic­tims’ rights groups to build an at­mos­phere of fear and law-and-or­der sen­ti­ment that led to the no­to­ri­ous three-strikes act, and prison ex­pan­sion and in­car­cer­a­tion rates that led to lu­cra­tive work for guards and a nearly bank­rupt state.

“The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of en­ti­ties that want to reg­u­late in some way are com­posed of Bap­tists and boot­leg­gers,” said Peter Van Doren, edi­tor of the quar­terly jour­nal Reg­u­la­tion, re­fer­ring to the two groups that pressed for Pro­hi­bi­tion 90 years ago: re­li­gious zealots who viewed al­co­hol as im­moral and the gang­sters who prof­ited from its il­le­gal sta­tus.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers are “prob­a­bly sin­cere and also mak­ing an al­liance with Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing, the moth­ers would be the Bap­tists,” he said. “They’re go­ing to them and say­ing if you man­date this thing, your ver­sion of the world will come along, and it just so hap­pens we’ll get rich, but of course they don’t say that part.”

Mr. Kelly said the strong­est lan­guage of an in­ter­lock direc­tive could be soft­ened in a Repub­li­can-con­trolled House.

“I’m not overly con­fi­dent that if there’s a pro­vi­sion in the House bill there’s go­ing to be a sanc­tion ap­proach” ver­sus in­cen­tives for com­pli­ance, he said.

Yet the battle high­lights the con­trol the fed­eral gov­ern­ment can ex­ert over the states in ar­eas in which it dis­burses sig­nif­i­cant funds, in­clud­ing for in­fra­struc­ture such as high­ways.

“That’s how they did .08,” said Mrs. Long­well, re­fer­ring to the act that forced states to set the legal thresh­old for drunken driv­ing at that level or for­feit funds.

All 50 states came to a drink­ing age of 21 through a sim­i­lar mech­a­nism, Mr. Van Doren said.

“When the drink­ing age was raised, it was the same thing, and Wis­con­sin was the last one to cave, big drink­ing tra­di­tion. And they fi­nally did,” he said.

“You do have the right to turn down fed­eral money. It’s just that no one chooses to do so.”

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