Is $82 million a lot of money?
It’s a pittance compared to the national debt, but to people such as you and me it’s a large chunk of change. $82 million is the amount donated by beer and wine wholesalers to political campaigns during the last three election cycles (2006, 2008 and 2010).
If you think this was an exercise of unbiased participation in the democratic process, think again. Due to the efforts of the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association, HR 1161 was introduced during this Congressional session.
I’ve commented on HR 1161 before, along with last session’s predecessor, HR 5034. This bill would severely restrict the rights of consumers to purchase alcohol by mail or through the Internet. It would make it impossible for consumers to legally challenge discriminatory shipment bans; it would give wholesalers virtually unchecked power to pass state laws granting them sweeping control of the distribution system; it would put numerous small, family wineries out of business. Less than 20% of U.S. wineries are in the national distribution system, and many of the rest depend on mail-order sales for their survival.
It’s every citizen’s right to lobby before Congress, of course, and the Supreme Court has recently defined political contributions as a form of free speech. The only problem with this form of speech is that not everyone can afford to be heard, and those with the largest amount of disposable income tend to speak the loudest. Americans spent over $300 billion on wine last year. For a contribution of $82 million, or far less than 0.001%, a group of people can potentially control what we drink and how we buy it. It pays to be in the right place at the right time.
There’s a silver lining here, and like everything else it’s fraught with irony. Even as I write this, Congress seems incapable of resolving the debt ceiling crisis after weeks of intensive debate. By the time they get around to HR 1161, all of us—the wholesalers that made the contributions, and the 300 million citizens potentially affected by them—will likely be long gone.