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Booze, smokes on agenda for quirky agency

Beltsville, Md. • Deep in a secure laboratory just outside Washington sits the federal government’s heaviest smoker.

It is a half-ton hulk of a machine, all brushed aluminum and gasping smoke holes, like a retrofit of equipment used on an Industrial Revolution production line. It can smoke 20 cigarettes at once and conclude which are unsafe because they are counterfeit and which are unsafe merely because they are cigarettes.

Down the hall, a chemist tests shiny flecks from a bottle of Goldschlager, the spicy cinnamon schnapps, to make sure they’re real gold. A government agent was sent out to stores to buy it and hundreds of other alcoholic drinks randomly chosen for analysis.

Back at headquarters in downtown Washington, a staffer prepares for a meeting of the Tequila Working Group — a committee created to mollify Mexico and keep bulk tequila flowing north across the border.

These are the proud scientists, rule-makers and trade ambassadors of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, one of the federal government’s least-known and most peculiar corners.

The bureau, known as TTB, collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business — from approving beer can labels to deciding how much air a gin bottle can contain between lid and liquor.

It decides which valleys in Oregon and California can slap their names on wine labels, what grapes can go into wine and which new alcoholic drinks are safe to import.

The bureau is one example of the specialized government offices threatened by Washington’s current zeal for cost-cutting. Obama administration officials weighed eliminating it during the fiscal stalemate of 2011, according to news reports at the time. Its officials were called to the White House budget office to justify their existence — or risk having their duties split between the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration.

The White House ultimately left the bureau’s $100 million budget in place for this year — perhaps because it spends far less money to collect each tax dollar than its counterpart, the IRS. But officials there remain hyper-aware of their vulnerability as Republicans and Democrats look to squeeze savings from unlikely places.

If they look closely, the belt-tighteners will discover an agency whose responsibilities often appear to conflict — a regulator that protects its industry from rules it deems unfair, a tax collector that sometimes cuts its companies a break.