WASHINGTON - For industry lobbyists, getting their favorite provisions included in the giant tax-cut bill approved by Congress was like grabbing the last available berths on the Titanic.
They succeeded in getting aboard, but they're going to go down with everybody else when President Clinton submerges the $792 billion bill with his promised veto.
Yet, because of Washington's mysterious ways, the lobbyists are not chagrined. In fact, they say, almost joyfully, that there is a method to this seeming madness.
'We put our marker down,' said Mary Jo Eustice, lobbyist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. 'We are going to get another chance.'
NO. 1: ESTATE TAX
For dealer lobbyists, the top priority was winning congressional approval of a provision that, over 10 years, would phase out the federal estate tax. They argue that the tax, with rates up to 55 percent, can force a dealership family to sell its business just to pay taxes after an owner dies.
Walter Huizenga, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association, explained the rationale for attaching amendments to legislation that is veto-bound: When Congress acts later on another tax bill that will be signed, lobbyists can say to lawmakers, 'You guys voted for this last time, and the sky didn't fall.'
In other words, lawmakers who favored abolishing the estate tax will find that editorialists and political opponents didn't rant at them, so they will be even more comfortable casting the same vote again.
'The first vote is the hardest,' Huizenga said.
Recalling a similar effort early this decade to repeal a tax on luxury cars, Huizenga said, 'You get it (attached to) everything you can. Eventually they stop debating it.' In 1996, Congress passed a bill to phase out the luxury tax, and President Clinton signed it.
In fact, Eustice noted, members of Congress have moved fairly quickly from talking about just trimming the estate tax to voting to abolish it. 'This has caught on. It is now a cornerstone of tax relief,' she said.
NADA also succeeded in adding to the doomed legislation a provision that would keep the nonprofit association from paying taxes on the activities of a profit-making subsidiary that publishes used-car guides.
A 1997 law exposed NADA to the unrelated-business-income tax but gave it a two-year grace period. The grace period expires next January, and NADA is trying to revise the underlying law.
Automakers and suppliers are potential beneficiaries of other provisions that they and their allies in the business community worked to include in the 573-page tax bill. Those provisions would:
Extend for five years the federal tax credit for research and development.
Give multinational corporations a break on interest expenses.
Reduce the corporate minimum tax.
Noticeably absent from the bill are Clinton's proposed tax credits for advanced-technology, fuel-efficient vehicles. Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., chief House sponsor of the credits, chose not to seek a vote on them.
The tax bill has not yet been delivered to the White House. GOP leaders say they will use the August congressional recess to build public opposition to a veto.