- Publish Date: Sep 13, 2010
Current Capitol Missteps Rep. Mike Thompson talks about the dangers of HR 5034. Today is a big day in Washington, when members of Congress return back from their districts and start debating the oil spill, Afghanistan, and financial reform.
We can now add wine to that list.
Last spring, lobbyists representing America's beer wholesalers pushed a bill into Congress (HR 5034) that's designed--among other things--to make it next to impossible for you to buy wine from across state lines and have it shipped to you. Capitol Hill power plays like this are nothing new, but the reaction to the bill certainly was: Many industry groups that typically agree with this type of legislation quickly voiced their opposition, stating that the bill goes way too far.
That alone might not be enough, though, since more than 100 Representatives signed on as cosponsors of the bill.
To get an insider's understanding of what's at stake, we spoke with Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California's First District, which includes Napa. He's one of the most outspoken opponents of HR 5034, but insists that he can't beat the bill on his own: It's up to everyday wine drinkers to get involved and stand up to the well-financed lobbyists.
Read on for our full interview with Rep. Thompson, and find out what you can do to make sure that you can continue to buy wine online, across state lines.
Bottlenotes: Describe in basic terms what HR 5034 is designed to do? Rep. Thompson: It would allow states to discriminate against producers of wine and beer and spirits. People who make great wines, beer and spirits would be under tremendous constraints regarding being able to sell their products in other states. In addition, consumers who want to purchase wine made in my district, or the microbrews made in my district, would be prohibited from purchasing those in their home states. It's unfair to producers, agriculture and consumers. The bill was pushed by the beer wholesalers, who've really been quiet until now on wine-related issues. Why do you think they're suddenly involved, and so aggressive? I think it's a couple things. They don't have any other issues; what happens a lot of times, groups in order to justify their existence come up with issues to get their members riled up. That's probably part of it. And they also want to have greater ability and market share--it's a bottom-line issue to them. A greater bottom line to them is a hit on both beer and wine producers and consumers. Typically wholesaler-friendly groups are very fragmented over HR 5034. Is it because this bill is too over-reaching and goes too far? Without question. In addition to setting up this mechanism where discrimination can easily take place, it goes beyond that in regard to fairness and sets abilities to go after producers. It puts producers in a position where they have to prove their innocence rather than the states proving their guilt. It goes against everything we stand for as Americans. So how did the bill get so much congressional support at a time when businesses have so much freedom, not to mention that the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) is a vineyard owner? I think that every member of Congress has two or three beer distributors in their district. They're a strong political force, and they've been able to garner some strong traditional support. Do you think that the ways of the wine world are so foreign to members of Congress in general that this bill makes a modicum of sense to them? Although wine is made in all 50 states, it's not as big a part of most congressional districts, as it is in mine. In California, it's a $62 billion industry. They make wine in Wyoming, Idaho and Nebraska but not to that magnitude, so it probably doesn't get the attention. My colleagues aren't as familiar with the industry. Is the political maneuvering and lobbying that you see with this bill the same sort of thing similar to what you see with other industries? They're out in force, trying to drum up support for their position. It's no different for this case than it would be for anything else. [Beer wholesalers are] a well-financed industry and they spend a lot of money in that regard. They don't have any other issues, so they can focus all their attention on this. So how do you, as a Congressman, fight the bill? I've testified against it in committee, written letters to my colleagues explaining how bad the bill is and talked to them about the damage it will do. And I'm out lobbying other organizations to come out in opposition to it. We're making some pretty good headway on it, and keep fighting until this thing is put to bed. [But] let folks know they need to contact their members of congress and their senators to let them know this is bad, and enlist their opposition. Given your experience in Congress, what are the odds that this bill makes it to the floor for a vote? I don't think it makes it to the floor this year. The beer wholesalers are working hard to get it there, and I'm doing everything I can to stop it from getting there. I'll fight it every inch of the way. Doomsday scenario: What happens if the bill passes? Does the American wine market change for consumers overnight? I generally don't do hypotheticals, especially not doomsday hypotheticals. But I'm pretty confident that we can stop this thing from happening. But you're right, passage of this bill would have that effect. It would hurt producers and consumers, and it's bad public policy. That's why I'm going to fight it, and that's why we're going to prevail.