As House leaders prepare to roll out a massive six-year highway funding bill, among the many interests watching with anticipation are a handful of businesses that have pressed for a requirement that could take them from cottage industry to multimillion-dollar market overnight.
The campaign by the manufacturers of in-car devices to test blood alcohol levels is representative of a particularly successful model of lobbying in which for-profit businesses align with altruistic activist groups to implement government regulations that create a captive market for their products.
A bill that would withhold up to 5 percent of each state’s highway funding unless that state requires such as device in the cars of all convicted drunken drivers was introduced in the Senate in February by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, and last month in the House by Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat.
For the past 18 months, lobbyists for “ignition interlocks,” as they are called, have jockeyed to inject a provision into the crevices of the transportation reauthorization bill, a tentative outline of which was released Friday by Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican.
The hospitality industry says a mandate could pave the way for a different type of sensor, other than a Breathalyzer, to be made standard in all cars within five years, in line with a separate House proposal introduced last month that would allocate $60 million over that period to develop the technology. Those devices would be set to detect blood alcohol content near the legal limit, likely through skin contact with the steering wheel.
The Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers hired lobbyist David Kelly, a former chief of staff and acting administrator at the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Mr. Lautenberg’s former chief of staff, Tim Yehl, now lobbies for Ignition Interlock Systems of Iowa.
“[Mothers Against Drunk Driving] and the interlock manufacturers are lobbying like mad. They are up on the Hill talking about it all the time, and you’ve got a lot of legislators who don’t necessarily want to disappoint them,” said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, which represents the alcohol industry.
Twelve states now require first-time DUI offenders to install a device, she said.
All sides want to curb drunken driving and support rules that require those convicted of driving while under the influence to outfit their cars with interlocks, she said, but her group wants them reserved for repeat offenders, high blood alcohol content cases and others where a judge deems them necessary.
‘Baptists and bootleggers’
The manufacturers are taking a page from a well-worn playbook: lobbying campaigns in which private companies advocate for government requirements that would make them rich by aligning with activist forces who provide moral pronouncements that are appealing to politicians and - once on the table - the public.
Producers of corn ethanol, after years spending tens of millions of dollars on K Street lobbyists in Washington and campaign contributions, saw their product mixed with gasoline in significant quantities because of mandates included in broader fuel standards trumpeted by environmentalists.
In California, the state prison guard union contributed to political campaigns at every level and coordinated with victims’ rights groups to build an atmosphere of fear and law-and-order sentiment that led to the notorious three-strikes act - and prison expansion and incarceration rates that led to lucrative work for guards and a nearly bankrupt state.
“The overwhelming majority of entities that want to regulate in some way are composed of Baptists and bootleggers,” said Peter Van Doren, editor of the quarterly journal Regulation, referring to the two groups that pressed for Prohibition 90 years ago: religious zealots who viewed alcohol as immoral and the gangsters who profited from its illegal status.
Manufacturers are “probably sincere and also making an alliance with Mothers Against Drunk Driving - the mothers would be the Baptists,” he said. “They’re going to them and saying if you mandate this thing, your version of the world will come along, and it just so happens we’ll get rich - but of course they don’t say that part.”
Mr. Kelly said the strongest language of an interlock directive could be softened in a Republican-controlled House.
“I’m not overly confident that if there’s a provision in the House bill there’s going to be a sanction approach” versus incentives for compliance, he said.
Yet the battle highlights the control the federal government can exert over the states in areas in which it disburses significant funds, including for infrastructure such as highways.
“That’s how they did .08,” said Mrs. Longwell, referring to the act that forced states to set the legal threshold for drunken driving at that level or forfeit funds.
All 50 states came to a drinking age of 21 through a similar mechanism, Mr. Van Doren said.
“When the drinking age was raised, it was the same thing, and Wisconsin was the last one to cave - big drinking tradition. And they finally did,” he said.
“You do have the right to turn down federal money. It’s just that no one chooses to do so.”