In the very Nashville recording studio where Alabama laid down their 1983 hit "Closer You Get," a coalition of interests representing the music industry, instrument merchants and small businesses gathered this morning in support of a new bill that would address perceived flaws in a century-old federal conservation law that some worry is too vague and poses a threat to musicians who unknowingly own instruments manufactured with illegal wood.
Introduced today by Tennessee Reps. Jim Cooper and Marsha Blackburn, the so-called RELIEF Act aims to tweak a 2008 amendment of the century-old Lacey Act, which gives the federal government broad powers in its enforcement of trade laws regarding the movement of endangered plant and wildlife species into and out of the U.S., including exotic woods employed in the production of guitars.
"We've got to make sure that musicians can travel safely without fear of confiscation of their guitar," Cooper, the bill's primary architect, said. "Most people never had any idea that guitars could technically be illegal. It's very important we clarify the law."
Although the Department of Justice has said that they will not prosecute owners of these products, Cooper is skeptical at taking their word for it.
"To give the law enforcement agencies credit, they have said in a press release you have nothing to worry about," he said. "But do you wanna trust a press release, or the law? Let's make the laws right."
If passed by Congress, the proposed legislation would "grandfather" any foreign wood products owned prior to the Lacey Act amendment's May 22, 2008 enactment date by exempting them from federal confiscation, as well as create an Internet database of illegal wood sources. Additionally, the act would streamline the documentation process for importers and exporters of wood products who are required by law to discern the legality of the sources of their wood stocks in accordance with the laws of the countries where the wood in question is harvested.
George Gruhn, of Nashville-based Gruhn Guitars, said that the at-times labyrinthine paperwork required to comply with these requirements of the Lacey Act needs to be addressed.
"It's not as straightforward as it ought to be," Gruhn said. "This bill is asking for clarity and common sense, and right now both of those are things we sorely need but are lacking. The basic intent of the Lacey Act was good. I do very much endorse conservation efforts … but it needs to be done in such a manner that is comprehensible and sensible, and this legislation does that."
Cooper stressed that one thing the RELIEF Act would not do is provide retroactive immunity for manufacturers that have used illegal wood and are currently under investigation by federal authorities, à la Gibson Guitar Corporation, which is currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation over the illegal importation of ebony and rosewood.
"This proposal really has nothing to do with any individual company," Cooper said. "That investigation will proceed on its own."
Addressing his criticism of the potentially musician-harming aspects of the 2008 Lacey Act amendment, Cooper pointed out that he did not vote for it — unlike Blackburn, who voted to override President Bush's original veto, and who took the opportunity to rail against the unintended consequences of government regulations.
"Many times there are rules and regulations that are put into action in Washington and there are unintended consequences that come form that," Blackburn said. "The RELIEF act is designed to address these unintended consequences."
Both Blackburn and Cooper are hopeful that the bill will get a hearing in the House Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Committee, which Blackburn vice-chairs under the leadership of California Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who has co-sponsored the RELIEF Act as well.