CAPITOL LOOKOUT: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu

Posted on Written by Michael Sciulla
Michael Sciulla

The raw power of grassroots lobbying has been on full display these last few weeks as the National Rifle Association and its 4 million members have pulled out all the stops to water down legislation to curb gun violence. No matter how the congressional debate finally ends up, there is no doubt that the NRA is an association that is willing to unfurl its sails to protect the lifestyle of its members.

Fortunately, recreational boating doesn’t face a legislative landscape of this magnitude — unless, of course, you believe that the federal government’s decision to allow E15 into the nation’s fuel supply is going to wreak havoc on boat engines. In that case, you might well believe that either your lifestyle or that substantial investment in fiberglass you have sitting out in the water is at risk.

Whether E15 comes to pass or not, recreational boating has faced and overcome a number of threats from our nation’s capital over the years, from a proposed weekend boating ban to the “user fee tax,” luxury tax and diesel fuel taxes of the 1980s and ’90s. For the most part, these taxes were designed to soak the perceived rich. The fact is that they had the opposite effect. Thousands of jobs were lost in an industry that is so discretionary that it gets pneumonia every time the government looks its way.

As the cherry blossoms fade away and the boating industry’s annual rite of spring, the American Boating Congress, comes to town, there are some important lobbying lessons that can be learned from other industries that are year-round players in the Washington merry-go-round.

There’s an old saying in our nation’s capital: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I hate to admit it, but the sad truth is that money often speaks louder than words here in Washington, D.C. Don’t believe me? Deep Throat wasn’t kidding when he told Bob Woodward to “follow the money.”

The good news is that the boating industry has full-time representation in our nation’s capital. This was not always the case. Since the mid-1980s, the NMMA has built up a Washington, D.C.-based government relations operation with a modest-sized political action committee that spent $118,775 during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org). Other maritime entities raised and spent varying amounts, including $154,015 by the American Waterways Operators, $155,094 by the Cruise Lines International Association, $78,258 by Brunswick Corp. and $59,575 by the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

Lagging far behind were the American Sportfishing Association, which spent $9,603; the Fishing Vessel Owners Association, at $7,309; the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, at $2,520; and BoatUS, which, although it has a political action committee, has not contributed any money to support or oppose candidates for public office since 2004, according to both opensecrets.org and www.fec.gov.

Meanwhile, the NRA and its affiliates spent more than $17 million. Other large industry associations were also big spenders:

• National Beer Wholesalers Association: $3.38 million

• National Auto Dealers Association: $3 million

• American Bankers Association: $2.73 million

• Credit Union National Association: $2.48 million

Fortunately, as they say, money isn’t everything. An association’s ability to turn out the grass roots is also important. Convincing a few hundred members of the boating industry to leave their businesses and troop up to Capitol Hill once a year for face-to-face meetings with their elected representatives during ABC is no small task. Having participated in these gatherings on and off since they were first held back in the 1980s, I am glad to see that there appears to be renewed energy behind this year’s ABC.

That said, a two-day meeting held once a year can only accomplish so much, particularly when your industry is so generally misunderstood by both politicians and the media, who can always be relied on to portray boating as little more than a recreation favored by wealthy fat cats and the idle rich. That’s why the lobbying effort is just as important for the other 363 days of the year.

Just last year, the first thing that the presiding chairman of a House subcommittee wanted to ask representatives of the boating industry was whether they thought there was a negative stigma associated with the marine industry and especially the word “yacht.” (I wrote about this last July.)

Many industries that are misunderstood on Capitol Hill or that find themselves in the cross hairs of Congress can alter these perceptions by ramping up their public relations operations and targeting the Capitol Hill community of politicians, staffers, federal employees and the media. All of these actors play a part in defining an industry and play a role in how that industry fares during the legislative process.

One way to change perceptions is by telling your story in your own words. Every week there are three independent newspapers that circulate on Capitol Hill that are chock full of ads designed to influence this community: Roll Call, Politico and The Hill.

During a recent week, these three papers included mostly full-page, but also some half-page ads from CTIA (America’s Wireless Companies); AARP; the Employment Policies Institute (against raising the minimum wage); the ASPCA; the Association of American Medical Colleges; the National Association of Chain Drug Stores; the Communications Workers of America; OXFAM; TechNet; the American Petroleum Institute; the Agriculture Council of America; Monsanto; and the financial behemoth Goldman Sachs.

Each of these ads is designed to inform and persuade. Although they are usually for or against a particular legislative proposal, some are simply an effort to introduce a particular interest group to the Capitol Hill community and let it know that they are serious players.

Here’s an idea. Boating could create a series of ads depicting the typical American boating family, including Fido, on a 16-foot boat with a headline that reads: Recreational Boating: It’s Not Called Yachting Anymore.

A comprehensive public relations campaign to change the perception that boating is yachting would be a smart strategic move for our industry, especially now. Everywhere you look, budgets are being squeezed and revenues are being sought. Sacred cows once thought immune from the congressional maw are now under the microscope and will be for the foreseeable future for as long as we have a mountain of debt.

Lastly, the marine industry needs to get serious about building its own grass-roots network, one that it can directly communicate with and unleash on Capitol Hill on a moment’s notice. With hundreds of thousands of names and email addresses in the Discover Boating database, recreational boating has an enormous advantage over most industries whose constituents are mostly consumers, rather than lifestyle participants. In many respects, boat owners are not unlike NRA members. One big difference: The NRA can harness hundreds of thousands of its members at the click of a mouse.

Don’t think this is the wave of the future? The chief executive of eBay, John Donahoe, on Sunday began emailing 40 million users of the company’s online marketplace in an effort to defeat legislation pending in the U.S. Senate that gives states the power to compel retailers outside their borders to collect online sales tax. Currently, states can only require merchants with a physical presence within their borders to collect sales tax.

Michael Sciulla established boating’s first federal political action committee and testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while also serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.

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Comments

8 comments on “CAPITOL LOOKOUT: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu

  1. Douglas Reimel

    Right On Michael, Right On! Every other organization has the ability to send and e-mail to its concerned members that includes a link. The link directs you to a page to automatically fill in your name ect. to a form letter, allows you to put in personal comments and with the click of the mouse it is sent to your congressman or senator.

    Yes I am struggling with technology, the question I have is do I really want to be that connected? Technology can be our friend too!

  2. Mick Blackistone

    Back in the 90’s NMMA had a government relations lobbying budget of almost $3 million and we stated the ABC via a very strong NMMA Government Relations Committee. Now NMMA must take charge with its $$ to recreate a strong Committee, PAC, andall inclusive lobbying effort. You did a great article but history is history now we are in the second generation of marine business owners and I’m not convinced that they know the real issues that are at stake. MY best to all but, at the end of the day, NMMA is the only source to put its money where its mouth is.

  3. David Pilvelait

    Mike,

    Spot on with your comments about the importance of a grass roots network. You will remember, certainly, how we were able to mobilize tens of thousands of BoatU.S. members to support the professional lobbying you and others were doing on the Hill to defeat the boat “user fee tax”?

    I still have one of the No User Fee logo t-shirts in a drawer, somewhere.

  4. John Kettlewell

    Great article! Though I have found it is very difficult to get any traction on many issues because the boating industry and boat owners are so diverse. For example, the E15 issue is a big deal to the power segment, but the sailors don’t really care. And, many sailors have been fighting anchoring restrictions or low bridges being built, but the power owners don’t care. These are gross simplifications of the issues, but I do know there is a lot of grumbling behind the scenes when one segment or another feels their problems are being ignored.

  5. Greg Proteau

    Although our industry’s PAC warchest pales in comparison to the big guns of the NRA, bankers and auto industry, we know that even a little monetary support for legislators goes a long way to getting relief for our gored ox[es]. We are also aware that there are uncounted corporate and private campaign contributions made by those in the boating industry where elected officials know exactly how their consideration of laws and regulations could help or hurt. Could the industry use more PAC dollars? Clearly!
    Contributors also need to hammer home the connection between the largely unsung economic impact of recreational boating (and fishing) and the jobs they represent and tax dollars raised, and yes, the societal benefit of family unity.
    Your point to correct the misperceptions that all boats are yachts or that all owners are rich needs to be a key feature of this campaign as well.
    Now the hard part: who will drive and manage it?

  6. Ronron

    Good points, but faulty premise. Michael reveals he is not the best for this by portraying the NRA activities to ‘water down legislation to curb gun violence’. Nothing proposed to date would curb the violence. Boston was another example of this misguided attention.
    I do like using numbers. lots of people understand and can read those: even politicians. Put a number next to Fido. Put a number next to pontoons. Put a number next to bass or center console fishing boats. Let the politicians know there are voters attached to those numbers. That is the sum number of voters being mistreated by categorization as Yachters. We all know there are only two things a politician fears, and one of those is not keeping their job.

  7. Mark Masciarotte

    Anyone who knows me knows that I have had both love and hate relationship with the NMMA over the decades. Nevertheless, on the points raised in this piece, I find I must agree with Mr. Blackistone’s view that the NMMA is the only group powerful enough to effect change. As other respondents have noted, our industry comprises so many interest sub-groups (power v. sail, fishing v cruising v waterskiing, etc.), that substantive funding through interest organizations is sketchy at best.

    The power of the grassroots effort supported and managed by Pat Healey and others during the luxury tax debacle, needs to be mirrored today by the millions of owners of small boats, no matter their affiliation with sub-groups. Mr. Proteau is correct. Someone needs to herd the cats, and to do that, that someone needs to have the money and expertise. Although I continue to believe that the NMMA remains disconnected to the users of its members’ products, it is the organization best equipped to wrangle all of the disparate factions that comprise recreational boating.

    I’d take Mr. Sciulla’s ad one step farther. A two-page spread. On the left a photo of a large yacht interior showing people who are doing the same thing they might do in a large house or apartment. The caption: This is Yachting. On the right, Fido and the family having a great day on the water. The caption: THIS is recreational boating.

    So, here’s the problem. To get numbers that will get the attention of legislators, BoatUS and the other user organizations would need to share their respective mailing lists with the NMMA (or whoever agrees to do the wrangling). It is the only way that the mailings will get to the owners of the small boats. It is the only way that their attention might be captured on national issues like E15 and access. It is the only way that a true grassroots movement can become possible. Unfortunately, getting that done may be the greatest hurdle of all to overcome.

  8. John Dane

    As Director of State Government Relations of NMMA in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was always impressed by the jobs our industry created from Bellingham, WA, to boat-rich Michigan, to small firms manufacturing large craft in New Jersey to marine industry heaven – Florida.

    The bi-partisan Congressional Boating Caucus, created in the early 1990’s (when Congressional representatives could actually affiliate with a bi-partisan cause) focused intensively on the many blue and white collar jobs our industry created – made in the USA (or Canada) brought favorable attention to the marine industry.

    My friends and colleagues Mike Sciulla, Greg Proteau and Mike Blackistone know well the power of grassroots political participation for boaters as well as manufacturers and employees. I agree with Mick that NMMA is the potentially most effective voice for the industry on Capitol Hill.

    For advertising purposes I would delete any “yacht” reference and show skilled marine industry workers and their families as one strategic and important face of the industry.

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