Beer drinkers victimized by shutdown

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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While it is difficult to sympathize with most furloughed federal employees, who know full well that they will receive retroactive compensation and are thus enjoying a little paid time off — never in past shutdowns have furloughed employees not been back-paid — there is no doubt that many people are being inconvenienced by the shut down. And some, like those dependent on federal support programs in their day-to-day lives, are actually suffering real harm.

But that’s nothing compared to the shutdown induced catastrophe we are suffering way out here in Oregon. As our local television stations have reported at the top of their new hours, the government shutdown is delaying our access to some new beer releases. I know this sounds unbelievably outrageous, but I’m not kidding.

We take our beer seriously here in the Northwest, and we have people who know how to make good beer. They are constantly coming up with new brews, each one better than the last. We stand in line to be first to taste the latest innovation from our many microbrewers. So when a federal shutdown comes between us and our beer, we’re upset, and not just a little.

It is clear that we are not alone. A Google search reveals pages of news stories from every corner of the country reporting on this crisis.

How is this possible? Well it turns out that the breweries cannot market their new creations without attaching labels approved by the federal government. As explained on its website, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), “implements and enforces a broad range of statutory and compliance provisions to ensure that alcohol products are created, labeled, and marketed in accordance with Federal laws and regulations.”

The regulations governing beer labeling appear in three different parts of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Including the 24 pages explaining TTB labeling proceedings, there are 95 pages of regulations relevant to beer labeling. Once a brewer masters these, there is a 4 page form that must be completed and submitted. Of course these numbers are current only as of September 27, so it is possible that the beer labeling bureaucracy might have new rules in mind to be added after they return from their forced vacations. In fact, being furloughed has probably given them much needed time to think up more labeling rules.

So, as of today, we have had to wait as much as almost two weeks for the release of our fall beers. And even if the government opens tomorrow we will no doubt have to wait longer since the TTB folks will have much catching up to do.

You might think I’m just making fun about all of this, but we are really serious about our beers here in Oregon. It’s a crisis.

But there has been one upside. Without the latest beers to swill, I have been thinking a little more clearly these last few days and it has come to me that there is something even more outrageous than the government shutdown’s delay of our fall beers.

What in the name of Ninkasi (she’s the Sumerian goddess of beer, in case you’re totally out of it) is the federal government doing in the business of regulating beer labels? Why is a government at risk of failing to pay its bills and destined for bankruptcy if it does not come to grips with its long-term obligations drafting and enforcing almost 100 pages of regulations on beer labeling?

I need a drink. I guess something vintage will have to do.