- Al Sharpton, Trayvon Martin’s parents rally against Fla. ‘stand your ground’ law
- Hillary Clinton campaign got illicit funds from D.C. scandal figure
- Obama administration backs off plan to cut prescription-drug program
- Tickets linked to stolen passports purchased by Iranian middleman
- More than 3,500 police planned for Boston Marathon
- Ottawa day care suspends 2-year-old for ‘outside’ cheese sandwich
- Liam Neeson tells NYC mayor to ‘man up’ in horse carriage fight
- Real-life Dr. Doolittle to reveal how to talk to animals
- Climate change could bring back smallpox, researchers say
- Shoe-bomb witness to speak from London at N.Y. trial
Booze, smokes on agenda for quirky gov’t group
BELTSVILLE, MD. (AP) - Deep in a secure laboratory just outside Washington sits the federal government’s heaviest smoker.
It is a half-ton hulk of a machine, all brushed aluminum and gasping smoke holes, like a retrofit of equipment used on an Industrial Revolution production line. It can smoke 20 cigarettes at once and conclude which are unsafe because they are counterfeit and which are unsafe merely because they are cigarettes.
Down the hall, a chemist tests shiny flecks from a bottle of Goldschlager, the spicy cinnamon schnapps, to make sure they’re real gold. A government agent was sent out to stores to buy it and hundreds of other alcoholic drinks randomly chosen for analysis.
Back at headquarters in downtown Washington, a staffer prepares for a meeting of the Tequila Working Group _ a committee created to mollify Mexico and keep bulk tequila flowing north across the border.
These are the proud scientists, rule-makers and trade ambassadors of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, one of the federal government’s least-known and most peculiar corners.
The bureau, known as TTB, collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business _ from approving beer can labels to deciding how much air a gin bottle can contain between lid and liquor.
It decides which valleys in Oregon and California can slap their names on wine labels, what grapes can go into wine and which new alcoholic drinks are safe to import.
The bureau is one example of the specialized government offices threatened by Washington’s current zeal for cost-cutting. Obama administration officials weighed eliminating it during the fiscal stalemate of 2011, according to news reports at the time. Its officials were called to the White House budget office to justify their existence _ or risk having their duties split between the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration.
The White House ultimately left the bureau’s $100 million budget in place for this year _ perhaps because it spends far less money to collect each tax dollar than its counterpart, the IRS. But officials there remain hyper-aware of their vulnerability as Republicans and Democrats look to squeeze savings from unlikely places.
If they look closely, the belt-tighteners will discover an agency whose responsibilities often appear to conflict _ a regulator that protects its industry from rules it deems unfair, a tax collector that sometimes cuts its companies a break.
Some of its decisions are open to negotiation. A tequila-like liquor with a scorpion floating in it made scientists balk until the producer convinced them that the scorpions are farm-raised and non-toxic.
In other words, this may be the only federal agency that responds favorably to receiving scorpion candy in the mail _ an edible tool for persuading scientists that the arthropods were fit for human consumption.
If labs, rules and taxes weren’t enough for the bureau’s 500-odd employees, they also have law enforcement authority. TTB investigators can send people to jail for things like removing alcohol from the production line and reselling it before it has been taxed by authorities.
With all these responsibilities, it’s no surprise the agency’s priorities sometimes clash. The bureau gives companies a wide berth on some rules and taxes, officials and experts say, mainly because of its small size and history of collaborating with business. It has granted millions in tax givebacks because of concerns that companies will sue and tie up government resources.
“Because we’re regulated by such a friendly agency, and because enforcement isn’t huge, there’s a level of non-compliance that’s sort of acceptable,” says Rachel Dumas Rey, president of Compli, a California company that helps wineries comply with Treasury policy.
TWT Video Picks
Taxpayers must pay the freight for over-budget train projects
- Kim Jong-un calls for execution of 33 Christians
- Senate Democrats, Republicans spar over restoring unemployment benefits
- Depth, distance reduce impact of California quake
- Mitch McConnell on beating tea party: 'We are going to crush them'
- Sharyl Attkisson resigns from CBS after months of talks
- Atheists sue to remove 'Ground Zero Cross' from 9/11 museum
- New faces finding ways to win on the PGA Tour
- U.S. pilot scares off Iranians with 'Top Gun'-worthy stunt: 'You really ought to go home'
- Prosecutors: Gray had firsthand knowledge of 'shadow campaign'
- DHS accused of holding U.S. citizen at airport, using emails to pry into her sex life
Pope Francis meets his 'mini-me'
Celebrity deaths in 2014
Winter storm hits states — again