Q&A with James Currie, NMMA director of federal legislative affairs

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08_currie_01James Currie is the new director of federal legislative affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. He is based in the association’s Washington, D.C., office.

 

Currie grew up in Jackson, Miss., and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Mississippi with a double major in history and political science. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Virginia and is a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Currie taught history at Mississippi College and Jackson State University and served as historian for the U.S. Department of Education. He was also associate historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. He served from 1984-89 as a legislative assistant to Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen Jr. and was concurrently a professional staff member and chief of the Latin America division of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

From 1991-2009 he was professor of political science/national security studies at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, where he also occupied the Bernard M. Baruch Chair of National Security Studies. In July 2009, he was named director of federal relations for the National Association of State Treasurers.

08_currie_02Currie is the author of three books, including histories of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Army Reserve, and 22 articles. His op-ed pieces have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. From 1994-1999, he was moderator and host of the nationally broadcast TV program “America’s Army,” and he has been a frequent lecturer.

Currie served four years of active duty with the Army and retired from the Army Reserve with the rank of colonel after a total of 30 years of service. Currie lives with his wife, Janis, in Alexandria, Va. Their son Matthew is a graduate student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. In addition to boating, Currie enjoys fishing and writing and is currently writing a children’s book.

Q: You recently started work at the NMMA – how has it been so far? What made you interested in this position?

A: It’s a terrific group of people to work with. I’ve been impressed with everyone I’ve met at NMMA, from Thom Dammrich on down. I was fortunate in that my first two days on the job – the 1st and 2nd of March – I was able to go out to Chicago, where the board of directors was having its strategic planning session, and strategic planning is something I have done a great deal of in my life, including when I was teaching at the National Defense University. So instead of having me sit in the back of the room and observe, they threw me into it and said, you sit in on one of the tables and you work with the board and get into the strategic planning with them.

09_currie_03Not only did it give me a terrific introduction to the issues that NMMA confronts, but it also allowed me to get to know a number of the board members very, very well over the day and a half that we were there and to get to learn the personalities. I was just elated that they saw me as someone who might be able to contribute to the process, even as the newest employee. … During my lifetime I’ve spent a lot of time on boats, particularly bass fishing, and I’ve had a boat myself, running it up and down the Potomac River. So it was something I thought would be interesting; it was issues I thought would be interesting.

I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot more fun than municipal securities. That’s what I was doing with the National Association of State Treasurers. … I don’t have to worry anymore about derivatives and hedge funds and how many basis points difference there is between a taxable and a non-taxable municipal security, and whether that represents an adequate return for the broker-dealers that handle them or whether it’s just Wall Street gouging. You see why I like boating instead?

Q: Can you talk about the challenges of advocating for the boating industry on Capitol Hill, especially in light of the economic situation in this country?

A: Actually, it’s real easy to advocate for the boating industry because it represents American manufacturing jobs. It represents things that are putting Americans to work and adding money to our economy and providing good-paying jobs for our citizens, and that’s a good thing.

In addition to the economic aspects of it, it fits right in with what everybody is saying today, which is we need to get young people out and more active outdoors. It fits in with the administration and the first lady’s promotion of a healthier, more active lifestyle, so it’s the easiest thing in the world to advocate on Capitol Hill. You feel like you’re advocating for something that is good and good for you in every respect, whether it is the economic or whether it is the lifestyle and the health benefits of it, as well as the fact that it promotes good family ties and helps families do things together.

It’s an easy sell. There are an awful lot of members of Congress who believe that and who are friends through the Boating Caucus and such. Who doesn’t like the idea of going out on a boat and being out on the water? The old cliché is a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.

It’s not going to be hard to get [boating's issues] in front of [members of Congress]. The difficulty, of course, is with the highly charged partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, which goes to both parties. It’s clear, at least from my analysis, that it’s unlikely that the 112th Congress is going to be taking any bold initiatives on anything. Of course, if there are any proposals that increase spending in any way, there’s going to be an incredible amount of scrutiny.

Depending on what it is that we are advocating, it may be harder than in the past to get things through because you do have to have an issue that goes across party lines.

Frankly, I think some of the boating issues will transcend party lines and maybe make it easier for us to get some things through than perhaps people who are advocating on behalf of other organizations and other issues. … The things that we’re talking about, like Wallop-Breaux, that’s a totally different way of funding things and it’s a matter of not increasing taxes or fees, it’s a case of making sure that the fees that are collected, the taxes that are collected are used for the purposes for which they are intended.

Q: The NMMA recently announced the new chairs for the Congressional Boating Caucus. Why were Reps. Candice Miller, R-Mich., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., good choices?

A: Both of them have a long history of being involved with the idea of boating and outdoor recreation. I have spoken with them and their staffs, and they are totally supportive. They’re going to be great spokespeople for the Boating Caucus in the House and we’re really looking forward to working with them. Both of them are going to be speakers at the American Boating Congress.

We lost a lot of [Boating Caucus] members [in the last election]. One of my jobs is to identify who those members were, and we’ve done that, and then I’m going to start visiting with the people who replaced them as a starting point and trying to recruit them to join the Boating Caucus. I know that the co-chairs have actually sent out a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to the membership in the House of Representatives, inviting them to join the Boating Caucus, and I’m sure we’re going to pick up a fair number of members just through that solicitation.

Then I’m going to be going around, sitting down and talking to people who would be the logical members of the caucus – basically anybody who has water in their state large enough to put a boat on. I think that’s everybody. Even the driest states have some impounds where you can get out there in a boat. My goal is to build the boating caucus to where it’s robust and healthy and has a lot of members who will understand the issues that our membership is concerned about and to whom we can go when we need champions on the Hill.

Q: What are the issues the NMMA most wants to see addressed during this Congress?

A: There are number of them and I wouldn’t put them in any particular hierarchical order.

Wallop-Breaux is one. That’s the statute that provides funding for a lot of the outdoor activities. A second issue that we’ve been working on … is over the EPA’s proposal to raise the volume in ethanol from 10 to 15 percent. We think that could have terrible effects on marine engines. We’re working with members of Congress to try to get them to contact the EPA and say, hold on, before you go out and start making 15 percent the standard ethanol blend, let’s do some more testing and let’s make sure we’re not being precipitous in doing that.

The NMMA is a big proponent of some of the free-trade agreements that are pending out there, notably with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Our membership believes very strongly that they can compete anywhere in the world and they’d like to have a level playing field to be able to get out there and compete. They’d love to see these bilateral free-trade agreements passed through the Congress. That may be a little easier with the Republicans having taken the House, because traditionally it’s been the Democrats who’ve opposed free-trade agreements and Republicans who have favored them.

Certainly, we’re going to be concerned about taxes. It’s going to be a little bit [harder] in this Congress, I think, to impose any additional taxes on small businesses – things that would harm American manufacturing.

And then the one that you might not think of, but obviously, the implementation of the health care law is going to be a big deal for our members because we really don’t know what effect it’s going to have on them. Many of them are small businesses that might not be as affected by it, but a lot of them are over that 50-employees threshold and we’ll just have to see how that plays out.

Q: Can you talk about the NMMA’s political action committee and why it’s important for the association to have a PAC?

A: Many, many trade associations have political action committees. These are ways for members to pool their resources and make their views known to members of Congress.

It all gets back to the basic cost of running a political campaign. They are enormously costly affairs and members of Congress spend what I’m sure they think is an inordinate amount of time fundraising. … The average member of the House of Representatives … has to raise a half a million dollars just to be competitive in a House race. The average senator has to raise about $6 million to be competitive in a race. So when you want to get the attention of a member of Congress, it helps a great deal if you have been a contributor to their campaign. You’re not buying votes; you’re not buying positions. Basically the way it works is that you help your friends. You want to help people get in office and stay in office who are favorable to you and help you with issues of concern to your membership.

We are totally bipartisan. We’re going to look at who supports us on our issues and clearly we’re not going to be able to give to every person who votes with us on every single issue or we’re not going to be able to give much to them anyway. But it’s important to support your friends and to try and help them stay in office.

Clearly, our small contributions are not going to swing an election for somebody. There are limits on how much a PAC can give. …

There are probably tens of thousands of political action committees who do exactly what we do. We help [lawmakers] in a modest way, but they remember that.

I don’t know off the top of my head how much [the NMMA has in its PAC]. I know it’s not nearly enough and we’re going to be aggressively trying to raise more so we will become a bigger force.

Q: The American Boating Congress is coming up. What would you say to those industry members who may be on the fence about coming?

A: They need to come. We’ve got a terrific program that we’re putting together. I mentioned that we have Reps. Miller and Donnelly who are speakers. We’ve got a rear admiral from the Coast Guard who’s coming in to be a speaker. One of our featured speakers is Greg Ip. Greg is the U.S. economics editor for The Economist magazine. … He’s going to talk about what the economy means to the boating industry and to manufacturers in general.

It’s also critical that our members come to town for ABC because we give them a structured environment in which they can go to the Hill and talk with the members and staff who represent them in the Congress. We will have NMMA staff on hand to help brief them on the issues, to accompany them on the Hill visits. They can always do this on their own, but we’re providing an opportunity in a structured environment for them to do it.

We’re also having a couple of receptions and we’re going to have members of Congress and staff at those receptions. It’s a great opportunity for our membership to get together with people on the Hill and explain to them their concerns, whether they’re economic or financial or environmental or whatever, and reach them directly without any intermediaries.

I can tell you there’s no better advocate for the boating industry than somebody who is in it. They listen to the people from back home. They will listen to us to because we represent the people back home, but they will listen to them because those are the people who vote in their districts and in their states. Those are the people who have neighbors and friends who vote and relatives who vote, and it is probably the best single thing a person can do during the year to advocate for the industry.

Q: Does a once-a-year, face-to-face Hill visit   really make a difference?

A: It absolutely does. I spent almost eight years on the Hill as a congressional staffer – I worked mostly for a senator – and I can tell you that his schedule was busy all day long, but he always wanted to know what is it that the people back home think about these issues. And it may be that they only came in once a year, but he made time for them. If you weren’t from Texas you had a hard time catching his ear, but if you were one of his constituents he wanted to make time for you and he listened, and his staff kept up with it and they kept up with who came to town and what they were concerned about.

Q: The next big election – 2012 – is a year and a half away. How much thought does a group like the NMMA give it at this point?

A: We’re not as concerned about the 2012 election, whether it’s presidential or congressional, as we are about just working with the political reality that we are facing right now. We’re going to go all-out for the next couple of years, working with the 112th Congress and working with this administration and trying to see if we can keep bad things from happening to the industry and keep good things happening for it. As 2012 approaches, clearly we’ll be looking at that as well. But right now we’re just focused on the people who are in office at the present time.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.

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