General McChrystal and Alcohol Regulators: Subverting Democracy

In criticizing the Obama administration General Stanley McChrystal made a fundamental mistake that is too often perpetrated in our society: He mistook himself for a politicians when he is really just an administrator. The reason this is such an important mistake is because the fundamental role of an administrator is to carry out policy. The fundamental role of a politician is to make policy on behalf of the people. The key difference here is that a politician has a constituency, that group that America's Founding Fathers identified as "The People" and who are the ultimate authority. An administrator has no constituency other than the politicians who tell them what to do and to whom they are beholden.

The same mistake was made by the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) when they endorsed H.R. 5034, a bill introduced into Congress that would fundamentally alter the political power between the federal and state governments. The NABCA is an association of alcohol administrators in states where the government controls some portion of the sale of alcohol and who are APPOINTED by politicians to carry out the will of the politicians' constituency: The People. When the NABCA endorsed H.R. 5034, they made the same mistake as General McChrystal did of confusing their position in the hierarchy of political power by taking on the role of politician rather than that of administrators.

It turns out another association of alcohol administrators, The National Conference of State Liquor Administrators (NCSLA) is considering making the same mistake. These kind of mistakes subvert democracy and often effect the rights of The People in ways that administrators have no business doing.

The annual conference of the NCSLA is finishing up today in New Orleans. Yesterday there was a heated debate over H.R. 5034 between wholesalers and producers with wholesalers arguing that states had lost much of their power to regulate alcohol according to the 21st Amendment due to the Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court decision and subsequent lawsuits. Meanwhile producers argued that passage of H.R. 5034 would not only fundamentally alter the relationship between state and federal authority where alcohol regulations are concerned, but severely damage the position of producers in the market while enshrining wholesalers as the most powerful and controlling entity within the alcohol distribution system.

It's good that these kind of debates occur. They air out the issue and allow stakeholders to do what stakeholders should do: stake out a position. However, where politics are concerned (and the question of the virtue of H.R. 5034 is most definitely a political issue) state regulators are decidedly NOT stakeholders.

At the end of yesterday's debate at the NCSLA Convention, wholesalers asked the numerous state alcohol regulators in the room to support H.R. 5034. Producers asked them not to. The NCSLA should heed the advice of the producers and, as an organization of administrators with no constituency other than their politicians who appointed them and make the laws they administer, take no position on the bill. By asking the regulators to support the bill the wholesalers in the room were asking administrators to step into a political fray of which they have no business being a part.

If the NCSLA takes a position on H.R. 5034 it would not be the first time alcohol administrators usurped the power of The People and their representatives. Not long ago Nida Samona, a mere political appointee as the Chairwoman of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, worked closely with wholesalers to help fundamentally alter the ability of Michiganders to access wine shipped to them from retailers. She forcefully supported a bill in Michigan while closely working with wholesalers in that state. It was an unconscionable and unethical overreach by an administrator who mistook herself for a politician. And just as General McChrystal should be sacked, so too should have Ms. Samona.

If the NCSLA comes down on the side of the wholesalers and endorses H.R. 5034 they will formally announce themselves as no longer being the fair and impartial administrators of alcohol policy that they are supposed to be. They will announce themselves as lackeys of the wholesalers.

6 Responses

  1. avvinare - June 23, 2010

    Great post. Very interesting comparison. One I had not thought of in all honesty. Well done.

  2. James McCann - June 24, 2010

    Hello again Tom. Devil’s Advocate here. (To remind your readers, I’ve worked in all tiers of the system and am now a “supplier.”)
    If the job of the representative is to make policy on behalf of their constituents, it leads to an interesting math problem. The beer wholesalers employ approximately 90,000 people. The wine and spirits wholesalers have 4100 locations, Southern alone has over 10,000 employees, Charmer, Glazers, and thousands of other small distributors means you are talking about 200,000 people that are theoretically “for” this type of bill. Add in the teetotalers – and those stats say approximately 45% of American adults don’t drink alcohol. How many wine lovers are there that order wine over the internet? How many FEEL STRONGLY about ordering over the internet?
    When I worked in CT, we would rent a large theater, fill it with all the wholesalers in the state (not including the truckers, who were out delivering) and met with our state representatives to discuss things like closing times, Sunday sales, etc… If we offered free wine in that same theater, we could not have gotten that many wine lovers to show up.
    So, putting aside the question of whether the feds should help shore up the state laws, are the Congressmen / women serving their constituents after all? Let’s discuss.

  3. Peter Turrone - June 24, 2010

    I suppose those wholesalers showing up to the meeting are there because they have a direct financial incentive to do so. If policy is passed in their favor, they make money either directly or indirectly.
    The wine lovers that don’t show up are out there enjoying their freedoms as Americans to purchase and enjoy wine, and usually would have no idea that there are financial interests convening to usurp some of their rights.
    People would rather not have to fight constantly to defend their rights. In this case it is the right to a free and fair market in which small producers have an avenue to sell their product and consumers have an avenue to purchase whatever product they wish. That’s freedom and that is what is at stake with this proposed legislation. Once the general public realizes that their freedom is being infringed upon, you can count on them to show up in force to oppose it.
    Thank you Tom for this wonderfully written and insightful posting.

  4. James McCann - June 24, 2010

    The right to wine shipment is very hard to find in the constitution, and the reason that people are not staging mass protests is that this affects a very, very tiny portion of the population. The “public” buys 4.99 wines in the supermarket. I also disagree with this bill, but the idea that legislators are not listening to their constituents is a red herring. They are simply not listening to the constituents that you want them to listen to. People can talk about all the letters they are sending to their Congresspeople, but I can assure you that is but a trickle compared to the letters, meetings, and money that is flowing from the other side.
    And yes, that wholesale salesman, truck driver, office worker, etc… all have the same right to have their voices heard.

  5. Brad Kitson - June 25, 2010

    James, Aren’t you off on a tangent? Wasn’t the post about administrators inappropriately participating in the political process?
    I think Tom is right. Administrators should only comment on what it takes to implement policy, not on policy itself.

  6. James McCann - June 26, 2010

    No, I believe that I am right on target. (Don’t we all?) Stay home from work some day and watch a Congressional committee hearing on CSPAN. There is usually a table full of administators being asked their opinion on a certain bill or regulation. Amicus briefs filed in Supreme Court cases come from Administrators. They are not subverting democracy, they have a right to let the policy makers know what would work better for them.
    That leads us to the politicians serving their constituents, and my point is that the math works against the Free the Grapes crowd. What certain legislators are trying to do is not even in a fuzzy area of the constitution. It specifically gives them the right to make this type of law in the regulation of interstate trade. Add the already existing 21st amendment to the mix, and things look a bit bleak.
    However, despite what some might like to tell you, there have never been more wine wholesalers, more wines available, more boutique shops, etc… I think much of the angst is a magnification of a terrible wine economy, which forces the marginal producers to find additional outlets for their products.

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