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H.R. 5034 Update: Revision Reignites Debate, Important Hearing Set for Wednesday

When H.R. 5034 (also known as the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness, or “CARE” Act) was introduced on April 15, 2010, the opposition responded quickly and forcefully. Supplier organizations were united in their opposition to the bill, referring to it as the “wholesalers monopoly protection bill”. Even the California State Legislature issued a resolution, SJR 34, that urged Congress not to pass H.R. 5034.

Proponents of the bill, including the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) claimed the proposed legislation was necessary to protect state-based regulatory systems from “attack” (i.e., legal scrutiny under the U.S. constitution), claiming that “25 states have faced challenges in federal courts to their authority to regulate alcohol and their ability to maintain a licensed system of alcohol controls” since 2005.

Following months of intense debate, heated rhetoric, and an incredible amount of public relations and lobbying activity on both sides, the House Judiciary Committee did not schedule the bill for a hearing until after the August congressional recess. During the recess, Representative Bill Delahunt, lead sponsor of H.R. 5034, sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., introducing new text in an what he terms effort to “perfect the language”, following “concerns about unintended [sic] consequences of the language as written”.

To help clarify the changes from the original version of H.R. 5034, we put together a redline document that highlights the revisions. The main change is the removal of section 3c, which established the presumption of validity and shifted the burden of proof in legal actions involving the regulation of alcoholic beverages. Like the original bill, the new version would immunize state laws that effect non-facial discrimination, such as capacity caps and in-person purchase requirements, if the discrimination were not proved to be “intentional”.

To better understand the revisions and the corresponding responses, we spoke with individuals from each of the tiers (the “three-tier system” includes suppliers, wholesalers and retailers) that are on the front lines of the debate.

Wholesaler organizations laud the new version as meaningful change. “While the proposed changes to the legislation address a narrower set of deregulatory concerns than the original legislation, it is certainly a step in the right direction,” says Karin Moore, Vice President and Co-General Counsel at WSWA. “The new version clarifies that the Granholm holding prohibiting facial or intentional discrimination against out-of-state producers remains the law of the land by incorporating the exact language used by Justice Kennedy in that landmark decision. The new language clearly and unequivocally confines itself to dormant Commerce Clause challenges, and addresses many of the concerns raised by opponents of the bill.”

Cary Greene, Chief Operating Officer & General Counsel at WineAmerica, sees broader implications. “There are many cases other than Granholm that elucidate how states can regulate interstate commerce in alcohol.  As revised, 5034 would undermine or reverse dozens of court decisions.  By scrambling settled case law, 5034 will cause years of re-litigation to try and figure out exactly what the new limits are.  The fact is courts have not done anything to jeopardize core Twenty-first Amendment powers.  State laws run into Constitutional trouble when they try to do something underhanded like fix prices or give an unfair market advantage to certain licensees or products.  5034 allows states to blatantly discriminate against out-of-state products without any concern for Twenty-first Amendment core purposes.  From a policy standpoint, I’m not sure why that would ever be a good thing.”

“The problems with HR 5034 remain significant, despite the changes to the language,” says Tom Wark, Executive Director of Specialty Wine Retailers Association. “Discrimination against out of state products would still be allowed on a number of levels and consumers are bound to be hurt by this legislation. Significantly for retailers, HR 5034 would strip wine retailers and merchants everywhere in America of their protection under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause from discriminatory state laws. It has happened only one other time in American history that an entire industry lost its Constitutional guarantee of free and open markets based on the constitutional principle of non-discrimination. Wine merchants would be catastrophically disadvantaged by H.R. 5034.”

imageA hearing in the House Judiciary Committee will take place at 11:00 ET this Wednesday, September 29th. This is an important hurdle in the process of moving legislation through Congress. Expert witnesses will testify in front of the full committee on Wednesday, and many parties will also provide written testimony to debate both sides of the bill. Barring technical difficulties, the hearing should be available via live webcast. Click here to watch the webcast (RealPlayer required).

So, what are the chances that H.R. 5034 will pass? Well, it’s important to note that the bill has 146 (not an insignificant number) co-sponsors from both parties in the House. On the other hand, supplier organizations continue to be unified in their opposition (Click here to view the joint opposition letter issued by the Brewers Association, WineAmerica, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Wine Institute, Beer Institute, and National Association of Beverage Importers on the revised 5034). We hope to learn a lot more in the hearing on Wednesday.

If H.R. 5034 moves through both chambers of Congress (no companion bill having yet been introduced in the Senate) and is signed by President Obama, not much would change overnight. Despite numerous reports that it would mean the end of direct shipping, it would not change current state laws that allow direct shipping. It would likely be an uphill battle to completely repeal existing direct shipping laws in most states. However, H.R. 5034 would open the door in states like Florida, New Mexico, and Massachusetts, where the direct shipping laws are in flux because of court cases and Granholm issues, for new state laws that introduce non-facial discrimination such as caps on production capacity (proposed for the last several years in Florida and recently nullified as unconstitutional in Massachusetts) or in-person purchase requirements. It would also provide discriminatory options for the remaining holdout states, such as Maryland, if their resident consumers’ support for direct shipment should become effective. With potentially greater long-term significance, it would tilt the field decidedly against extension of Granholm’s nondiscrimination principle to interstate retailing by non-producing shippers and to interstate wholesaling.

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  1. Son of 5034: C.A.R.E. Act Re-Introduced as HR 1161 - ShipCompliant - [...] which were untouched. For additional background on the CARE Act and its potential effects, see our previous post, which …

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