The Times West Virginian

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November 23, 2012

Fiscal cliff brings new twist on lobbying

WASHINGTON — The election may be over, but a new campaign is being waged in the nation’s capital as lobbyists, advocates and trade groups fight to shape the government’s response to the looming fiscal cliff.

It’s a twist on the usual lobbying effort: Instead of digging for more tax dollars, they’re trying to protect what they’ve got.

The tactics are familiar to voters who were swamped with TV commercials, newspaper ads and mailers in the frenzied months before Election Day. But this time, the effort is directed at politicians, not so much the public.

What do these groups want?

In this climate, lobbyists and advocacy groups are mainly trying to control the damage as Congress and the White House look to raise taxes and cut spending in an attempt to slow down the government’s mushrooming debt. In other words: Don’t raise my taxes and don’t cut spending on programs I like.

At the same time, cheerleaders for fiscal austerity, including members of President Barack Obama’s own deficit commission, are lobbying him and Congress to cut deficits. In 2010, the commission proposed a plan that mixed tax increases and spending cuts to reduce government borrowing by almost $4 trillion over the next decade.

Obama largely ignored that plan. Now, the two co-chairmen of the commission, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, have formed a group called Fix the Debt that is running newspaper ads that mimic popular advertising campaigns. One ad features a picture of a female runner and the catch phrase, “Just fix it.” Another is a picture of a woman with a milk mustache and the slogan, “Got debt?”

“Even the best advertising in the world can’t fix the debt,” says the ad. “But together we can. Let’s get to work.”

Come January, the nation faces a massive combination of automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts that have come be known as the “fiscal cliff” because allowing this scenario to play out would probably send the economy back into recession, according to government economists.

Lawmakers and the White House are working in a postelection session of Congress to reduce the sudden jolt of higher taxes and spending cuts and lay a framework for addressing the nation’s long-term financial problems. But the two political parties are struggling to find common ground, especially on taxes and widely popular benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Obama wants to let tax rates rise for wealthy families while sparing middle- and low-income taxpayers. Some Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, have said they are willing to consider making the wealthy pay more by reducing their tax breaks. But most Republicans in Congress adamantly oppose raising tax rates.

If the wealthy are going to put out more tax money one way or another, it may not matter much whether they do so by paying a higher rate or by seeing their tax shelters shrink. But most of those tax breaks have some broader policy purpose behind them. In Washington, lobbyists are paid handsomely to focus on seemingly small details like that and lawmakers are perfectly capable of getting tied in knots over them.

Advocates for older people are warning the negotiators to keep their hands off Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “We didn’t put out the resources that we did to elect the president and others to have them turn around and cut these programs,” said Eric Kingson, co-director of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, a group of more than 300 advocacy groups and labor unions.

The defense industry is fighting against spending cuts that would bite weapons makers. The National Association of Manufacturers warns that 1 million private-sector jobs could be lost if pending cuts to defense spending go through.

Companies that make medical devices are trying to stop new taxes on their products under the new health care law. The Charitable Giving Coalition warns that benevolent donations will suffer if they’re no longer tax deductible.

A coalition of medical research groups called Research! America is trying to cut through the noise with stark ads likening spending cuts to poison: “WARNING: Washington politics just might kill you.”

Many advocacy groups are pressing their cases directly. Labor leaders and several business CEOs met Obama at the White House last week, while mayors came to Capitol Hill to make a case to lawmakers against cutting aid to cities.

“Cities have already been at the fiscal cliff — we’ve cut our budgets, we’ve cut our staffs,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We recognize that tough decisions have to be made, but at the same time we have to make sure that we have a seat at the table. As some say in Philadelphia, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

That’s a familiar refrain — almost everyone acknowledges that money has to be cut, no one wants it to be theirs.

Advocates for the oil and gas industry say they fully expect the tax breaks they enjoy to be on the table.  After all, Obama has been targeting them for years. So, unlike other years when their lobbyists might seek to improve the industry’s hand, the more modest goal this year is to minimize the damage.

“We’re certainly not asking for anything on Capitol Hill,” said Brian Johnson, senior tax adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.

Really?

The institute has started an ad campaign aimed at senators from seven states — all of them up for re-election in 2014. One is Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

“Sen. Mark Warner can make energy a big part of improving our economy,” says a TV commercial. “He can choose economic growth and American jobs, not slow them with job-killing energy taxes.”

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