Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson and Republican Rep. George Radanovich, co-chairs of the new Congressional Wine Caucus, sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., requesting that the committee not adopt any measure similar to a Senate amendment that would use federal power to enforce states' direct-shipping bans.
Late last week, the Senate passed a juvenile-violence bill containing two amendments that regulate the shipping of alcohol across state lines directly to consumers. The bill provides money for rehabilitating juvenile offenders; it also restricts gun sales. However, numerous amendments were subsequently added to the bill, including two proposed to prevent minors from getting access to alcohol via Internet, phone or mail-order sales.
One amendment, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., restricts minors' access to alcohol by instituting labeling requirements and requiring shippers to ask for proof of age and an adult signature before delivery. This approach is supported by many wineries as a way to prevent potential problems while still allowing them to sell their products directly to adult customers.
The other amendment, sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and modeled after a similar bill introduced earlier by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would give states access to federal courts to back up their direct-shipping laws. This measure has been promoted by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association, which wants to restrict direct shipments because its members could lose business to Internet sales. The Wine Institute and other winery trade organizations are fighting such restrictions, saying that they will limit consumers' access to hard-to-find fine wines.
"The amendment, which allows states to take out-of-state wineries to federal court for allegedly violating the state's anti-direct shipping law, seeks to address a problem that does not exist," stated the congressmen's letter to Hyde. "There is no evidence that minors are purchasing premium wine over the Internet," Radanovich and Thompson said. "Fortunately, there are adequate safeguards to prevent deliveries of alcohol by shippers to minors ... . Thus, the Byrd amendment fails to address the issue of underage access to alcohol."
While no amendment based on Byrd's proposal has yet been attached to the House version of the juvenile-justice bill, at least one congressman is a strong supporter of this approach. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Md., plans to introduce a similar proposal calling for state access to federal courts, though a spokesperson said he intends it to be a separate bill, not an amendment.
The juvenile-justice bill awaits debate in the House Judiciary Committee, possibly as soon as June 7 -- at which point amendments can be proposed, according to the legislators' aides. The bill would then go to the House for a vote the following week. In the meantime, said Tom LaFaille, legislative counsel for Thompson, "[The congressmen] are working on educating each member of the Judiciary Committee on the issue and urging defeat of anything similar to the Byrd amendment."
"We're talking with the wine industry about alternatives that would more directly address the issue of minors' access to alcohol," said Tricia Geringer, legislative aide for Radanovich. "We want to tailor something to the issue rather than hurting small businesses."
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