Commentary: Got a Bill to Push? Wrap It in the Flag

At first blush, Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared to be reacting forcefully to the threat of terrorists among us when he called on Congress to endorse new intrusions into personal privacy. "The American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 25.

An unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals sees another agenda at work, however. By piggybacking controversial wiretapping and preventive-detention provisions on top of a dozen antiterrorist measures, Ashcroft is trying to use public ire to push proposals that lawmakers have long resisted. Or so say groups from the American Conservative Union to the American Civil Liberties Union. "The Justice Dept. threw together its entire wish list of the last 10 years," says conservative activist Grover G. Norquist. "To take advantage of a situation like this is outrageous."

PUSHING "FAST TRACK." In post-terror Washington, one person's outrage is another person's window of opportunity. Old agendas are being wrapped in the flag as everyone from Cabinet Secretaries to corporate lobbyists tries to capitalize on the public mood. Usually the pitch solemnly proclaims that one proposal or another is needed to protect the country from terrorism or help the sagging economy rebound. All within the bounds of good taste, of course.

Business groups, for example, say that Presidential trade-promotion authority (long known as "fast track") is now vital to help President Bush reward partners in his multinational coalition against terrorism. Steelmakers say they need protection not just to combat unfair foreign competition but because a healthy steel industry is crucial to national defense.

That's just the beginning. Big Oil argues that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would help protect energy security, and on Sept. 25, Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) unsuccessfully tried to attach an open-the-ANWR proposal to pending defense legislation. Amtrak, meanwhile, is asking for millions to help it cope with a flood of new travelers and new security challenges.

"This crisis is being used as a rationale for doing all sorts of foolish things," says Cato Institute President William A. Niskanen. And even good ideas are being repackaged in patriotic wrapping. When it comes to the Pentagon budget, says Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), "Whatever's in the pipeline is now `the key to fighting terrorism."'

While some lobbyists aggressively push the disaster angle, most in the business community don't want to seem as though they're cashing in on the tragedy. Indeed, insurance industry representatives told Bush on Sept. 21 that they didn't want an airline-type bailout. Still, insurers say they'd like to create a partnership with the government to share the risks in case of future acts of domestic terrorism. "To us, there is a bright line between value-added help to the victims and our companies--and opportunism," says Phil Anderson, senior vice-president of the American Council of Life Insurers. "We're making sure we stay damn far behind that line."

The same can be said for the hospitality industry, which has been trying for years to restore full tax deductibility for business meals. "We've been very reluctant to engage in a lobbying strategy that plays off the [Sept. 11] events," says Lee Culpepper of the National Restaurant Assn. Still, lawmakers "know what our agenda is and they can connect the dots as they see fit."

With Washington in a bailout frenzy, lobbyists must decide whether to be crass--or be left behind. "If the government's going to start handing out checks, someone will think he's not doing his job if he doesn't get in line," worries U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice-President R. Bruce Josten. Trouble is, the line could quickly become endless.

By Richard S. Dunham

With Amy Borrus in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.