Business lobbies prod Congress on COVID relief

Restaurants, brewers and other businesses tell Congress they’re desperate

James Wedekind and his wife, Jessica, of Springfield, Va., sit with their children at Dacha Beer Garden in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood in May, when restaurants were allowed to reopen with COVID-19 limitations in place. The city has imposed new restrictions as Congress weighs a new relief package and lobbyists for beer brewers are pressing for help. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
James Wedekind and his wife, Jessica, of Springfield, Va., sit with their children at Dacha Beer Garden in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood in May, when restaurants were allowed to reopen with COVID-19 limitations in place. The city has imposed new restrictions as Congress weighs a new relief package and lobbyists for beer brewers are pressing for help. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 14, 2020 at 5:37pm

The coronavirus pandemic has hit beer makers’ bottom lines, and like other industries, they’re pleading with Congress to help. 

The Beer Institute, a lobbying group for large and small brewers, estimates a $22 billion drop in sales. Many small brewers are simply “struggling to survive,” Jim McGreevy, the group’s president and CEO, said during a Zoom interview with CQ Roll Call. 

The Beer Institute, restaurateurs, small-business owners and big-business lobbies are mounting a desperate year-end push, urging lawmakers to approve new COVID-19 relief legislation as a lifeline to struggling companies and to aid the overall economy. It comes after months of wrangling over politics, funding disputes and disagreement over potential liability protections for companies.   

COVID-19 relief has dominated the K Street agenda nearly all year as the pandemic cratered the nation’s economy. And even with the earliest vaccines making their way to medical workers this week, U.S. companies and their lobbyists say they still urgently need Congress to act.

Not only are lobbyists such as McGreevy, making the case, but so are local business owners who are making the pitch to congressional leaders and their own lawmakers. 

Jeff Good, who owns restaurants in Jackson, Mississippi, is helping the U.S. Chamber of Commerce explain the grim situation to lawmakers. Restaurants need another round of money from the Paycheck Protection Program, Good told CQ Roll Call last week. 

He’s been in the business for 26 years. 

“I’m involved because I’m really worried about the future of my industry,” he said, adding that he fears a dystopian near future of closed-up restaurants and local shops. 

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“Eight months later, as the pandemic rages on, we see small business after small business once again shuttering operations with no lifeline to hold on to until the vaccine arrives and the economy recovers,” he wrote in an opinion piece for CNN. “The pleas can be heard from small business owners nationwide calling on our federal government and its leaders to immediately pass a new stimulus package that offers businesses in need the means to keep their doors open and their employees employed.” 

One sticking point in ongoing negotiations over a sweeping relief package has been liability protections for companies to limit lawsuits related to COVID-19 infections. 

Lawmakers working on a bipartisan deal had included the protections in their proposal but decided over the weekend to move them and funding for state and local governments to another measure. The larger bill that remains, totaling an estimated $748 billion, includes unemployment insurance, small-business relief, money for education, vaccine distribution and more. 

Making a deal

Kevin Kuhlman, vice president of federal government relations for the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group and its members have been calling on Congress to make a deal. The pandemic keeps them off the Capitol grounds, so they’re writing letters and emails and doing video calls to make their case. 

“The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has served as a vital tool for over 5 million of our nation’s small businesses,” Kuhlman wrote in a letter to senators last week. “However, as you are aware, the original aim of the program was to provide a temporary, stopgap measure to prevent business closure and layoffs over a relatively short period of time. Now, over nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our nation’s small businesses are facing new restrictions that disproportionately affect their business models and the likelihood of a very difficult winter period ahead.”

Kuhlman said NFIB also was likely to support the liability legislation, although he was still awaiting final details.   

“We are encouraged to see the progress,” he said. “There is a level of desperation, especially for those businesses that are really hurting.”

His group has regularly surveyed its members, finding that about 20 percent anticipate they cannot survive in the current conditions for another six months.  

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents small companies and large corporations alike, will hold a news call Tuesday where it will explain the details of its latest Small Business Index, which the group said shows a “dire need” for pandemic relief.    

The chamber’s Neil Bradley, who serves as executive vice president and chief policy officer, said in a statement Monday that if there is insufficient support for liability protection and state aid, as appeared to be the case, then the group favored passing the rest of the package without those sticking points. 

“Partial agreement is better than no agreement, and it is imperative that Congress advance aid for small businesses and nonprofits, extension of unemployment programs, funding for schools and day care centers, and resources to support vaccinations before the end of the year,” Bradley said in a statement.

Lobbying harder 

In an interview last week, Bradley told CQ Roll Call that the chamber had been lobbying since this summer, to no success, for another COVID-19 relief package. Over the last couple of weeks, “we’ve really ramped up our efforts,” including mobilizing and teaming up with business leaders such as Good, he said. 

“We’ve been working with our state and local chambers, many of them reaching out formally to their congressional delegations, talking about the need for pandemic relief for their state,” he said. 

Businesses of all sizes are struggling, he said, noting that “if it involves people getting together, then it’s not doing very well.”  

That’s been the problem for the brewers, according to McGreevy, who said retail beer sales have declined this year because restaurants and bars have been closed or operating with limited capacity. The beer makers also are calling on Congress to prevent excise tax increases that are set to take effect in the new year.

“When a major channel of your sale of your product, like bars and restaurants, are closed for months, everyone in beer suffers,” he said.  

The group has deployed a virtual day of action aimed at lawmakers and has hopped on Zoom calls, press calls and panel discussions and dispatched digital advertising to make its case. 

For brewers, he said, “COVID relief and tax relief is welcome.”

Niels Lesniewski and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.